Despite Mixed Signals, Trump Continues to Embrace Hardline on Immigration

A gentler tone isn’t winning over critics in the pro-immigration community, and it’s upsetting some of his most ardent supporters.

Trump on Immigration: New Path or Old Rhetoric?

Donald Trump has sparked a flurry of confusion about his stance on immigration, a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, with mixed signals from the candidate and his top advisers over the last week.

Despite floating a "softening" when it comes to undocumented immigrants and his top aides promising a "fair" and "humane" policy, the totality of Trump's recent remarks reveals only one meaningful change in his immigration platform: an apparent retreat from mass deportation. Trump said on his Twitter account Sunday evening that he will make a “major speech” on immigration Wednesday in Arizona.

Trump remains opposed to legal status for undocumented immigrants, and on Saturday he reaffirmed his support for many of the restrictive proposals laid out in his August 2015 policy paper.

Shifting away from his promise to deport all 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, Trump said in Des Moines, Iowa, that his priority will be to expel undocumented felons, which is also President Barack Obama's deportation priority.

"We are going to get rid of the criminals and it's going to happen—within one hour after I take office, we start," he said, standing beside hardline U.S. Representative Steve King. Trump said he'd "build a great wall" on the Mexican border and implement mandatory E-Verify for employers, develop an entry-exit tracking system to catch visa overstays, and undo Obama's executive actions to give temporary work permits to young people and undocumented parents of U.S. citizens.

Just 70 days before the election, Trump trails Democrat Hillary Clinton in key states likely to decide the election, and his message on immigration is getting muddled. The softer rhetoric may be an attempt to improve his image with Hispanic voters in states like Florida, Colorado, and Nevada. But his agenda remains a virtual wish list for immigration hardliners. The kinder tone that he's using isn't winning over prominent Trump critics in the pro-immigration community, and it's upsetting some of his most ardent supporters.

In an interview, conservative provocateur, author and Trump supporter Ann Coulter said Trump's shifts are "all minor stylistic stuff," but added: "I’m annoyed nonetheless. It’s rhetorical, but why is he even talking about how to make the 30 million illegals here more comfortable?" (The Pew Research Center and Center For Migration Studies peg the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally at around 11 million, but some on the right claim it's much higher.) 

Trump campaign officials and surrogates tried to calm the furor on the Sunday talk shows by insisting he has been consistent.

"The softening is more approach than policy," Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News Sunday. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said Trump has been "very consistent" on "no amnesty, no legalization for folks who have come into the country illegally," and a border wall.

Mass Deportation

During the primary, Trump vowed to deport all of the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. "They have to go," he told NBC's Meet the Press in August 2015, suggesting creation of a "deportation force" that could remove them all in within two years.

That was never realistic. One estimate by the American Action Forum, a conservative pro-immigration group, placed the cost of rounding up and deporting every undocumented immigrant and preventing future entries at $400 billion to $600 billion.

The question of what to do with the undocumented population has long tripped up Republicans who oppose granting them legal status. Some immigration hardliners prefer to avoid the question of what to do with undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. until the enactment of policies that reduce incentives for unlawful entries and visa overstays.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he and other advocates for restricting immigration recognize the government won't deport every undocumented immigrant. Trump is "learning on the fly, it seems," about what's plausible and how to discuss the thorny issue, he said. 

"We're going to end up amnestying some portion of the illegal immigrant population," Krikorian conceded, but said that debate should come later. "You don't debate how you're going to bail out the boat until you plug the hole."

Legal Status

Trump said on Fox News on Aug. 23 that when it comes to dealing with unlawful immigrants, "there could certainly can be a softening because we're not looking to hurt people." His remark was interpreted by some to suggest he's open to giving them legal status, but he later clarified he's not. "There is no path to legalization unless they leave the country and come back," Trump told CNN's Anderson Cooper two days later. 

In a May 4 interview after he secured the nomination, Trump reiterated his plan to deport everyone who's unlawfully present, but added a twist.

"They're going to be deported," he told NBC Nightly News. "We have many illegals in the country and we have to go through a process and go through a system and ones that have done well and have really achieved we want to bring them back in."

Current law requires people who have been deported to wait 5, 10 or 20 years (depending on the circumstances) before applying for legal entry to the U.S.

"We all learned in kindergarten to stand in line, to wait our turn," campaign manager Conway said on Fox News Sunday. "He is saying that, as well." 

Trump's remarks about re-entry have raised questions about whether he supports an expedited process for certain people to return legally, a legislative proposal dating back to 2007 that critics have labeled "touchback amnesty."

A Trump campaign official didn't return a message Saturday seeking clarity on his position when it comes to expedited re-entry.

Even with his deportation shift, Trump's immigration vision is more restrictive than that of recent Republican candidates. Unlike Trump, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush supported legal status for undocumented people, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio endorsed a path to citizenship as part of a sequence of bills that begin with border security. Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee, ran on a hardline platform of "self-deportation," but he supported normalizing the status of people who served in the military.

Different Pages

In a microcosm of how the Trump campaign tends to sow confusion about its policy positions, running mate Mike Pence punted Sunday on a question that Trump has long since taken a clear position on. He said on CNN's "State of the Union" that the question of whether citizenship is a birthright is "a subject for the future."  But the year-old immigration policy blueprint on Trump's campaign website opposes it. "End birthright citizenship," it reads. "This remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration."

Pence also wouldn't say if Trump intends to execute a mass deportation program, insisting that "nothing has changed about Donald Trump's position on dealing with illegal immigration" and emphasizing his support for a border wall and opposition to a path to legalization.

Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, deputy vice president of the pro-immigration National Council of La Raza, said she doesn't perceive a meaningful shift in Trump's positions.

"It’s hard to say what if, any impact, something so undefined may have. Reports about his comments or those of people in his campaign range from 'nothing has changed' to 'details to come.' Which could mean anything and nothing, and leaves his past comments as the most resonant," she said, referring to Trump's use of the word "rapists" and "criminals" to describe some immigrants from Mexico, and his attack on the impartiality of an American federal judge of Mexican ancestry.

Coulter, who is promoting her newly-published book In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awsome!, quipped that Trump's supporters "all want to shoot him at various times," but said she'd stand by him.

"My worship for him is like the people of North Korea worship their Dear Leader—blind loyalty," she said. "Once he gave that Mexican rapist speech, I’ll walk across glass for him. That’s basically it."

—With assistance from Joshua Green.

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