Donald Trump is backing away from his call for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, and even some of his rally-going supporters say they’re fine with it.
If he wins the November election, the Republican presidential nominee said Monday, he would do “the same thing” as President Barack Obama in prioritizing the removal of criminals residing in the U.S. illegally, but “perhaps with a lot more energy.”
Trump appears to be heeding allies’ longstanding advice to soften his stance on deportations, which they worry is toxic to Hispanic voters, now that he faces Democrat Hillary Clinton—and troubling poll numbers–in a general election fewer than 80 days away.
His move raised the hackles of some conservatives who see it as a step toward amnesty, but it’s not clear his bid to broaden support will cost him many core supporters.
“We’re going to obey the existing laws. Now, the existing laws are very strong,” Trump said Monday on Fox News. “The first thing we’re going to do, if and when I win, is we’re going to get rid of all of the bad ones. We’ve got gang members, we have killers, we have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country.”
“As far as everybody else, we’re going to go through the process, ” he said. “What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country, Bush the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m going to do the same thing.”
In a town hall-style event hosted by Fox News on Tuesday, Trump was asked if there were parts of the law he’d change to accommodate law-abiding undocumented immigrants. “There certainly can be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people,” he said. He didn’t indicate openness to considering legal status for those people, however, and reiterated that he intends to follow the law, which requires removing them from the country.
Obama has deported more people than any prior U.S. president, leading one immigrant-rights advocate to label him the “deporter-in-chief.” In 2014, Obama announced executive actions to direct resources to deporting felons, terrorism suspects, and new border-crossers, while going easier on undocumented people who have lived in the U.S. for years and aren’t committing crimes inside the country. (The other part of Obama’s plan, work permits for young people and parents of U.S. citizens, has been blocked by the courts.)
Trump’s alignment with Obama about deportation priorities is a departure from the Republican’s statement a year ago that all the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. “have to go” and that a “deportation force” could handle the job in as little as two years.
He intends to reverse Obama’s move granting deferred action and work permits to undocumented people, said national policy director Stephen Miller on Tuesday prior to the Fox News event’s airing.
“Mr. Trump was merely saying he would use the laws all presidents have had at their disposal to effect removals,” Miller said, “only he would not suspend some laws in preference for others but enforce them all.”
Rhetoric or Policy
After the shift, Trump quickly faced charges that he supports “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants.
“Trump’s stated position in the last 24 hours is utterly mind boggling,” warned Rick Tyler, a former spokesman for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, on Tuesday prior to the Fox News event’s airing. “If he gets tagged with the amnesty label, it’s over. He’s going to lose a huge portion of what has up until now been his core support.”
The “amnesty” label has seriously damaged the national political prospects of Republicans like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who voted for a path to citizenship in 2013 before backing away from it.
Yet even prominent immigration restrictionists, who would like to seal the border and cut legal immigration levels, aren’t clamoring for expulsion of undocumented people en masse.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Trump should avoid any discussion of what to do about undocumented immigrants until steps are taken to stop their flow into the U.S.
“He's playing the other side’s game,” Krikorian said. “The answer should be, ‘You don't even have any business asking that question now.’ You don't debate how you’re going to bail out the boat until you plug the hole.”
Trump hasn’t publicly wavered on his opposition to granting undocumented immigrants legal status. He is also holding firm on his promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and his proposal to slash legal-immigration flows.
Democrats and immigrant-rights activists are skeptical. An aide to Clinton, who proposes a path to citizenship through legislation and executive leniency on deportation beyond what Obama has offered, said Sunday as Trump’s shift was coming into view that the campaign believes his plan “remains the same as it's always been: tear apart families and deport 16 million people from the United States.”
America’s Voice founder Frank Sharry dismissed Trump’s shift as purely rhetorical.
“Trump may be adopting an Obama-like approach to deportations, or he may be adopting a public relations strategy that sounds more reasonable than his talk of mass round-ups with a deportation force. My guess is that it's the latter,” Sharry said in an e-mail. “He’s too tied to and identified with his nativist followers to truly pivot. And yet he needs to appeal to suburban Republican voters turned off by his bigotry and racism, exemplified by his embrace of mass deportation.”
During a Trump campaign swing in Ohio on Monday, residents said it would be understandable if he shifts his stance away from full deportation.
Jim Fitsko, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Marion County, Ohio, said if he were advising Trump, he’d suggest giving immigrants in the U.S. illegally “a way to make it right,” except for criminals.
Frank Williams, president of the police union’s Akron lodge, agreed that immigrants who have committed violent crimes should be forced to leave. Williams said he has no problem with non-violent immigrants “going through a process of becoming a citizen.”
“The law-abiding ones are OK,” said Monroe Falls Police Chief Jerry Hughes. “What I’m more worried about is people coming in now with terrorist connections. Letting them stream in by the thousands isn’t the answer.”
Some Trump supporters at his Akron rally said they understood why he’s changing his position.
“You do one thing in a primary to get our core people—it’s just American politics,” said Tom Zawistowsi, 62, an Akron Republican in the telecommunications business. But it’s clear that “the American people have said we want something done with the illegals,” Zawistowski said. “If you break the law, there should be consequences.”
“It’s a waste of resources” to try to deport millions of people, said Erik Schramm, 21, a full-time student at Kent State University who voted for Ohio Governor John Kasich in the presidential primary and supports Trump now. “If he wants to back down on things that are over the top, and say, ‘Hey, I’ll work with everybody a little bit’ when it comes to his policies, I think he’s trying to do that.” Schramm has no problem with “a path to citizenship,” he said.
Newt Young of Mansfield, Ohio, said, “It’s going to be very difficult to deport 11 million immigrants. Just don’t let any more in until we sort this out. And if they have any sort of legal problem, deport immediately.”
“I think his position needs to evolve a little bit," said David Patrick, a truck driver from Warren, Ohio. “You can’t deport everyone, not people with families.”
Still, one of the Ohioans interviewed said they wanted Trump to stick to his original, uncompromising approach.
“I don’t agree with keeping the illegals here. They have to catch ‘em all,” said Cathy Smith, 45, a homeschooling mother from Warren, Ohio. All immigrants need to “come in legally,” she said.
—With assistance from Chelsea Mes.