Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions of illegal immigrants and then build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep them out may have helped catapult him to the Republican nomination, but the candidate now appears to be softening his controversial deportation threat and embracing a far less draconian conservative posture on immigration reform.
BuzzFeed reported that during a meeting on Saturday with his newly formed Hispanic advisory council, Trump hinted he is interested in devising a “humane and efficient” means of dealing with immigrants currently living in the country illegally.
The Republican nominee — who is trailing Hillary Clinton by as much as 10 points in the polls and has alienated much of the Hispanic vote with his relentlessly anti-immigrant rhetoric and ideas — stressed that any new announcements would still be in line with his tough border-security policies and anti-terrorist efforts. And there is no sign he would go along with anything smacking of “amnesty.”
“He said people who are here is the toughest part of the immigration debate, that it must be something that respects border security but deals with this in a humane and efficient manner,” Jacob Monty, a Houston-based immigration lawyer who attended the meeting in New York with other Latino supporters and Trump, told BuzzFeed.
This was not the first time Trump has indicated a possible sea change in his views on mass deportations, a proposal that has drawn sharp rebukes from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and many other leading figures in the GOP.
However, Kellyanne Conway, a veteran pollster who became Trump’s campaign manager last week in a shakeup that forced out Chairman Paul Manafort, was cagey in describing the weekend strategy session with Hispanic supporters in a televised interview Sunday. She insisted that Trump’s immigration policies remain a work in progress.
“What Donald Trump said yesterday in that meeting differed very little from what he has said publicly,” including during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month, Conway told CNN’s Dana Bash on the State of the Union program. “It’s that we need a ‘fair’ and ‘humane’ way of dealing with what is estimated to be about 11 million illegal immigrants in this country.”
“That was part of the discussion,” she went on. “It was a very robust discussion. . . and the rest of the conversation frankly was about job creation, economic revitalization, the fact that our small business growth among Hispanic and Latino Americans is on the rise, and we talked about the inability to get access to capital.”
Conway, who along with former Breitbart News CEO Steve Bannon is now calling the shots in the campaign, said that as the weeks unfold, Trump will spell out in greater detail his plans for dealing with illegal immigrants in this country and helping Hispanics. When pressed by Bash to say whether Trump has decided to drop mass deportation from his menu of solutions, Conway responded: “To be determined.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and adviser to Trump on immigration policy, said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation that the GOP nominee has not made a “firm commitment” on whether he would deport massive numbers of illegal immigrants. “He’s wrestling with how to do that,” Sessions said. “People that are here unlawfully, came into the country against our laws, are subject to being removed. That’s just plain fact.”
Trump first signaled a major rethinking of his position in late June during an interview with Bloomberg Politics at his golf course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He repeatedly insisted that he wouldn’t characterize his immigration plan as including “mass deportation.”
In a remarkable performance of political jujitsu, Trump criticized President Obama for callously presiding over record high numbers of deportations of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Latin America — including families and unescorted children — after months of criticizing the administration for weak enforcement of immigration laws and permitting an open border.
“President Obama has mass deported vast numbers of people — the most ever, and it’s never reported,” Trump told Bloomberg at the time. “I think people are going to find that I have not only the best policies, but I will have the biggest heart of anybody.”
Since Obama first took office in January 2009, the government has deported more than 2.5 million people, many of them Central American women and children who illegally crossed into the country to escape violence and poverty. That represents a 25 percent increase in deportations compared with the eight years of administration under Republican President George W. Bush.
Last November, just as the 2016 primary season was heating up, Trump said he would assemble a “deportation force,” to round up and ship illegal immigrants back to their native countries. The proposals galvanized Trump’s conservative following, but drew strong condemnation from civil libertarians, immigration reform advocates and others who denounced Trump’s ideas as unconstitutional, inhumane and wildly impractical. That plan, combined with his subsequent promises to bar most Muslims from entering this country until the government could do more to discourage domestic terrorism, gave Clinton and other foes the opening to characterize Trump as a highly dangerous, reckless and inhumane figure who should never be given the keys to the White House.