Donald Trump insists he hasn’t flip-flopped on the harsh immigration policies he used to rally conservatives to his side during the GOP primary season. But in an interview Monday night with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, the Republican presidential nominee did a 180 on his long-standing vow to round up and deport more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
At one time, Trump wistfully hearkened back to the Eisenhower administration’s “Operation Wetback,” when more than one million illegal immigrants were arrested or interned in prison camps and frequently unceremoniously dumped across the border in Mexico without food and water. But since Trump met last Saturday with an advisory group of Latino activists and lawyers at Trump Tower in New York to discuss “more humane” ways of dealing with the problem, senior campaign advisers have been signaling that an overhaul of the candidate’s most controversial proposal was in the works.
During his appearance on Fox late yesterday, the real estate mogul emphatically ruled out the possibility of massive roundups, imprisonment and deportation of millions of illegal immigrants currently in the country. Instead, he said, he would enforce existing immigration laws and continue to do what President Obama and former Republican President George W. Bush have done, although “perhaps with a lot more energy.”
Although Trump has frequently criticized the Obama administration for failed immigration and border security policies that allowed many illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central American to slip across an “open border,” immigration authorities have deported or turned back more than 2.5 million people during the past seven years, including a record 438,000 in 2013 before tapering off.
ProPublica shed some light on how the administration was able to increase deportation by 23 percent from the Bush administration. The private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, which has been part of the government's immigration enforcement for years, had a $1 billion contract to build and maintain a detention facility for women and children in South Texas. The kicker--the prison was guaranteed payment whether the prison was full or not.
“Now we’re going to obey the existing laws,” Trump said. “Now the existing laws are very strong. 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. We’re going to get them out. The police know who they are. They’re known by law enforcement who they are . . . They’re going to be out of this country so fast your head will spin. We have existing laws that allow you to do that.”
Maybe...but that's what Obama and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been doing. Of the 2.5 million deported illegal immigrants, 59 percent had committed a crime, according to a report in The Washington Post based on Pew Research.
“As far as everybody else, we’re going to go through the process,” he added. “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.”
As has been often the case, Trump was more content to espouse high concepts than the details of his proposals. He offered only the vaguest of descriptions of how he would divide illegal immigrants between the “bad dudes” who would be deported and the rest of the more law-abiding undocumented immigrants who would be allowed to stay. He said nothing about how he would actually round up and detain those destined for deportation, and how that might affect their families. He stressed, however, that “We want to do it in a very humane manner.”
When O’Reilly noted that any effort at mass deportation would mean immigration and police raiding homes and placing illegal immigrants in detention centers until they can be adjudicated and removed from the country, Trump seemed surprised.
“You’re the first one to mention detention center,” Trump said. “You don’t have to put them in a detention center. I never even heard the term. I’m not going to put them in a detention center.”
This was a far cry from Trump’s tone during the GOP primaries when he regularly derided his rivals for being too weak on the immigration issue. He vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and mobilize “a deportation force” to oust millions of illegal immigrants. Trump first broke into the 2016 GOP campaign limelight a year ago by denouncing the illegal immigrant population as a cesspool of “rapists” and “criminals” who are preying on Americans, taking their jobs and exhausting their social services. Attacks on illegal immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims and other groups became standard fare in Trump stump speeches.
There’s been considerable speculation about Trump’s motivation in making this policy shift now, a week after he authorized a major shakeup in his top campaign organization and sought to soften his image by publicly expressing regret for some of his nastiest and most “hurtful” comments and attacks. With post-national convention polls showing Trump trailing Clinton substantially, especially in a handful of key battleground states including Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Trump may be trying to lure back more moderate Republicans who have been offended or even horrified by some of his harsh rhetoric and attacks.
He is also badly trailing Clinton among Hispanic voters who have been turned off by his immigration and deportation stands. Hispanic voters proved important in some of the GOP and Democratic primaries this year and could make an important difference in battleground states such as Florida, Arizona and Colorado.
While he might be able to win back some of that support, Trump will come nowhere close to George W. Bush’s 40 percent showing among Hispanic voters in his successful 2004 reelection campaign — the last time a Republican captured the White House. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney garnered only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in his loss to Obama in 2012. It’s highly doubtful Trump can even match that losing effort.
Trump must also be careful not to antagonize his hardline conservative political base by moderating his views on immigration too much. Any move to embrace more moderate reform proposals, such as creating a possible pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants or abandoning plans for a wall, would be viewed as a betrayal by many of Trump’s most ardent supporters, even while a recent Gallup survey showed that 76 percent of all Republicans favor creating a path to citizenship.
Precisely where Trump will finally come down on immigration reform remains to be seen. His campaign over the weekend said he would deliver a major immigration speech in Colorado on Thursday, but then canceled the speech without explanation. Instead, Trump was rerouted to Texas, where he is focusing on border security and his new call for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s emails during her four years as secretary of state.