WASHINGTON — As Donald J. Trump moved to wrap up his unlikely Republican nomination for the presidency, a senior adviser to Senator Ted Cruz laced into the front-runner in March 2016, in a last-ditch effort to swing the contest to Mr. Cruz, the more traditionally conservative candidate.
The target? Mr. Trump’s soft stand on immigrant workers.
“He uses the immigrants in ways that advantage him monetarily but disadvantage American citizens,” Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said of Mr. Trump’s hiring of temporary foreign employees for Trump resorts from Florida to New Jersey. “He says it’s wrong,” Mr. Cuccinelli told a radio interviewer, “but he still does it.”
Three years later, the president and Mr. Cuccinelli have put aside their differences to make common cause in a pursuit of the fiercest anti-immigration agenda in generations. As the acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Mr. Cuccinelli now oversees legal immigration, including the visa program that he once criticized and Mr. Trump made rich use of in staffing resorts such as Mar-a-Lago in Florida and the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
From that seemingly narrow perch, he has roiled the Department of Homeland Security, peppering other senior officials with pointed email demands, encroaching on Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations and generally appointing himself spokesman for all things immigration in the Trump administration.
In three weeks, one fact has become clear: In Mr. Cuccinelli, Mr. Trump has found someone to his right on immigration but perfectly in line with his street-fighting skills.
“He has many critics,” said L. Preston Bryant, a Republican who served in the Virginia House of Delegates when Mr. Cuccinelli was a state senator, “but they underestimate Ken Cuccinelli at their own peril.”
Mr. Cuccinelli, a descendant of Italian immigrants who sought sanctuary at Ellis Island, was recruited initially as the administration’s immigration czar, with the broadest possible portfolio. Within days, though, he was redirected to head Citizenship and Immigration Services. The more limited job description has not hindered Mr. Cuccinelli. If the White House adviser Stephen Miller is the architect of Mr. Trump’s effort to restrict both legal and illegal immigration, Mr. Cuccinelli has emerged as its public face.
He has aggressively pushed immigration policies with little concern for legal constraints. His tendency to make light of sensitive policies has incensed senior homeland security officials, including the acting secretary, Kevin K. McAleenan, and the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Matthew T. Albence, according to administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the rising tension among officials.
Signature Cuccinelli initiatives include efforts to speed up asylum screenings, to make it harder for children of some active service members born abroad to obtain citizenship and to force immigrants facing life-threatening health crises to return to their home countries (the administration recently announced that it would reconsider the last decision).
His agency also put in place a rule that would deny legal status to immigrants deemed likely to use government benefit programs. A day after announcing that “public charge” policy, Mr. Cuccinelli revised the iconic sonnet on the Statue of Liberty by saying the United States would welcome those “who can stand on their own two feet.”
Born in Edison, N.J., Mr. Cuccinelli, 51, was raised in Virginia, where he assumed the nickname “Cooch.” He graduated from the University of Virginia with an engineering degree and from George Mason with a law degree.
From the start, his political career — he was a state senator from 2002 to 2010 before becoming Virginia’s attorney general — was marked by his hard-line stand on immigration at a time when his home base, extending to parts of Fairfax County in the far suburbs of Washington, was divided by an influx of first-generation Americans. He proposed legislation that would allow employers to fire employees who did not speak English, advocated denying citizenship to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants and provoked backlash as attorney general when he referred to immigration policy while discussing killing rats in Washington.
He also displayed the acumen to carry out wide-reaching, complex policy.
A devout Catholic, Mr. Cuccinelli made his name nationally more as a social conservative than as an immigration hard-liner. He defended a Virginia law that criminalized sodomy, advocated prohibiting Virginia state universities from protecting same-sex couples from discrimination and investigated the University of Virginia to obtain documents related to the work of a scientist who studied climate change, accusing the professor of fraud. He issued edited pins of the state seal for his staff to wear with the exposed breast of a Roman goddess covered up.
“He certainly shares Trump’s desire for cultural conflict and a relishing of cultural conflict that is very uncommon for most Virginia Republicans,” said Brennan Bilberry, a former spokesman for Terry McAuliffe, who defeated Mr. Cuccinelli in the 2013 Virginia governor’s race.
But long before Mr. Trump was galvanizing his political base with anti-immigrant language, Mr. Cuccinelli used a similar approach to appeal to white voters in a rapidly changing Northern Virginia.
His district was “beginning to see early in his term a substantial influx from people outside who looked different,” said Mark J. Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. “So there was some populist appeal to his taking a very hard immigration stance.
“But,” Mr. Rozell added, “with Cuccinelli, for good or bad, it has always seemed that his positions came out of a certain core of his convictions.”
Mr. Cuccinelli’s allies say his positions are rooted in the belief that a legal immigration system is crucial to maintaining a functioning society. But Mr. Cuccinelli tends to tailor his views based on whether the legal immigrants in question are fleeing desperation south of the border or, like his ancestors, escaping Europe.
When a photograph of a drowned migrant father and daughter on the banks of the Rio Grande went viral in June, Mr. Cuccinelli said the father was to blame. When he was pressed on CNN about his edit of the Statue of Liberty poem, he said Emma Lazarus’s famous verses referred to “people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies.”
Mr. Cuccinelli did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman, Jessica Collins, said Mr. Cuccinelli viewed the United States as a nation of immigrants; maintaining that tradition “requires immigrants to come here legally.” Ms. Collins said one of the first bills Mr. Cuccinelli passed as a state senator extended legal protections to immigrants in the country legally and illegally who had their personal documents withheld from them by the authorities.
But current and former Virginia lawmakers pointed to actions of a different type taken by Mr. Cuccinelli, such as a 2010 legal opinion that allowed Virginia law enforcement officials to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped. When Mr. Cuccinelli called into a radio station in 2012 to criticize a local ordinance that he said protected rats from being killed in Washington, he segued into immigration enforcement.
The law “is worse than our immigration policy — you can’t break up rat families,” he pivoted, apparently advocating such separations. “Or raccoons or all the rest, and you can’t even kill them. It’s unbelievable.”
Claire G. Gastañaga, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, sued Mr. Cuccinelli repeatedly when he was the state’s attorney general, but she also wrote columns with him and praised his willingness to protect privacy rights, one of a handful of issues in which Mr. Cuccinelli’s populism can cross party lines.
“There are areas where his conservative approach to government is protective to individual rights,” Ms. Gastañaga said, “but not if you’re an immigrant.”
Since joining Citizenship and Immigration Services, Mr. Cuccinelli has brandished the sharp elbows he honed in Richmond. Senior officials in the Department of Homeland Security have watched angrily as Mr. Cuccinelli spoke about ICE raids on television and tweeted a photograph of an active crime scene at an ICE office in San Antonio without consulting top officials at the enforcement agency, administration officials said.
Mr. Cuccinelli has emailed Mr. Albence, the acting director of ICE, and other officials at the agency to demand that it turn over authority over a student visa program, which Mr. Cuccinelli wants to limit in scope, according to administration officials. Mr. Albence pushed back against the combative emails, the officials said, and Mr. McAleenan and some White House officials have told Mr. Cuccinelli to tone it down.
“That’s not how it’s going to work, my friend,” Mr. Cuccinelli said in a reply to the pushback from ICE officials, according to an administration official.
His performance has pleased immigration restrictionists outside the administration, a key constituency of Mr. Trump’s. “I haven’t had any little birdies tell me it’s a disaster or anything like that” at the agency, said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the hard-line Center for Immigration Studies.
Ms. Collins, the Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman, disputed that Mr. Cuccinelli had demanded anything from officials and said he had “gone out of his way to be of assistance to them in a variety of ways.”
But Mr. Cuccinelli is unlikely to be confirmed as the permanent director because of his tumultuous relationship with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Two years ago Mr. Cuccinelli signed a letter drafted by conservative activists calling for Mr. McConnell to step down. As president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, he backed hard-line conservatives against more mainstream Republicans, even siding with Matt Bevin, Kentucky’s current governor, in his failed 2014 primary campaign against Mr. McConnell. And Mr. McConnell has let the White House know of his displeasure with Mr. Cuccinelli’s appointment.
Mr. Cuccinelli’s emergence as the unofficial homeland security spokesman, when each agency overseeing immigration policy is led by an acting chief, has left the rank and file wondering who is in charge, administration officials said.
“Is Kevin McAleenan in charge of homeland security; is he acting secretary?” asked David Lapan, a former press secretary for the cabinet department. “Why is Cuccinelli out there talking about all these topics? I’m sure people would say that’s because that’s what the president wants, but that’s not necessarily the best thing for the Department of Homeland Security.”
A senior White House official responded to such questions unbidden, emphasizing that those closest to Mr. Trump believe Mr. Cuccinelli is more aligned with the president on immigration than his peers in the sprawling department, including Mr. McAleenan.