The pyrotechnics of Donald Trump’s new immigration speech obscured the fact that he’s embraced a more moderate position that would effectively allow millions of otherwise law-abiding immigrants here illegally to remain in this country.
Trump’s 10-point plan to crack down on illegal immigration sticks to themes of his improbable presidential campaign: the construction of a wall separating the United States and Mexico; the swift deportation of immigrants in the U.S. illegally who are incarcerated or commit crimes; an end of so-called “sanctuary cities” that provide shelter to immigrants here illegally; and the expansion of an E-Verify system to help businesses determine whether job applicants are eligible to work in the U.S.
He said people living here without legal permission who had criminal records, belonged to gangs or overstayed their visas would face swift deportation.
“Then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those who remain,” Trump said Wednesday. “That discussion can only take place in an atmosphere in which illegal immigration is a memory of the past, allowing us to weigh the different options available based on the new circumstances at the time.”
But his assessment Wednesday is a dramatic shift from his primary election talk about the mass deportation of an estimated 11 million immigrants currently residing in the U.S. illegally.
I think you’re going to see there’s really quite a bit of softening.
Donald Trump on Laura Ingraham’s radio show
“The tone of his rhetoric last night disguised that he’s sticking with his position of last week that he’s no longer for mass deportation of noncriminals,” said Roy Beck, the executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that supports immigration limits.
“He’s absolutely not calling for roundups or mass deportation,” added Beck, who doesn’t advocate mass deportation and who applauded Trump’s address. “He said everyone is subject to deportation, stating what the law is. That’s not even close to the mass deportation he talked about last year.”
Trump conceded as much Thursday in an interview on conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham’s show.
“Oh, there’s softening,” Trump said. “Look, we do it in a very humane way, and we’re going to see with the people that are in the country. Obviously, I want to get the gang members out, the drug peddlers out. I want to get the drug dealers out. We’ve got a lot of people in this country that you can’t have, and those people we’ll get out.”
The number of people who could be deported under Trump’s blueprint is significant.
As many as 5.5 million of the 11 million immigrants here illegally have expired visas, based on figures provided by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington research center.
About 690,000 immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have committed crimes – felonies or misdemeanors – serious enough to be prioritized for deportation.
I think we need to take into consideration some of the positive aspects but still be clearly aware that they came here illegally.
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., a Trump supporter
But that would leave about 6 million apparently allowed to stay for an indefinite period.
Trump’s camp seemed to acknowledge even before Wednesday’s speech that a significant chunk of immigrants here illegally would still remain in the United States, albeit without a path to citizenship or access to entitlements.
Donald Trump Jr. said his father wasn’t going soft on mass deportation but that he was taking a “baby steps” incremental approach to immigration by focusing first on immigrants in the U.S. illegally who’ve committed crimes.
Trump faced a choice with his speech: Appeal to the majority of Americans voters, whom polls show have favorable views of immigrants, or to his largely white, working-class voter base, which is drawn to him because of his vow to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and to forcibly deport immigrants who are here illegally.
He tried to accomplish both Wednesday, first with a visit to Mexico, where he appeared statesmanlike following a meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto, then with his immigration address in Arizona.
“He needs to make progress and make up ground with voters who haven’t made up their minds,” said Kevin Madden, who was 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s senior communications strategist. “Last night’s speech seemed to be preaching to the committed. He took a tactical success – the trip to Mexico – and turned it into a tactical failure within a few hours with the speech.”
Trump supporters disagree. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said Trump had “handled himself exceptionally well” in Mexico and that his immigration speech “grabbed the middle ground” in the debate.
“The winds are behind him,” Santorum said on CNBC. “This is a race that Donald Trump should win.”