Trump Rolls the Dice on Immigration, and It’s Coming Up Snake Eyes
Policy + Politics

Trump Rolls the Dice on Immigration, and It’s Coming Up Snake Eyes

Rick Wilking

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump once famously said that he was so popular with his conservative followers that "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

While many of his supporters without question have been willing to cut the billionaire businessman considerable slack on any number of things, he may have finally run into a wall this week with his surprising softening of his harsh immigration stands.

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Trump marched to victory in the 2016 GOP primaries largely by belittling the immigration policies of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, calling them spineless in coming to grips with a porous border and rooting out “rapists” and “criminals” living illegally in the U.S.

He rallied conservative forces by vowing to round up and deport the 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country, build a huge wall along the southern border to keep them and other undesirables out of the country, and absolutely refused to grant any of them legal status or citizenship to remain in the U.S.

Trump insists he is still committed to building the wall and somehow forcing the Mexican government to pay for it. But in the past few days he has signaled that not only could many of the “law abiding” illegals remain in the country under a Trump administration but that he might find a way to grant many of them legal status.

During a campaign event broadcast on Fox News Wednesday night, Trump startled many of his staunchest backers by suggesting that he would now open to some sort of pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants. “No citizenship,” Trump insisted. “They’ll pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes,” he said.

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“There’s no amnesty, but we will work with them,” he added later in the town hall-style event. Trump repeated his view that while he wanted to weed out the “bad ones” from the millions of illegal immigrants living in the shadows, he has heard enough times from voters and his own Hispanic advisory group that his previous vow to deport law-abiding families who have lived in this country for decades was heartless and impractical.

“They’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,’” the billionaire recalled.

What is most surprising is that Trump is making perfect sense for a change on the immigration issues, whatever his motivation.

Trump seems to be wrestling with the same issues of fairness, constitutional law and practicality that drove the Senate debate that led to passage in June 2013 of an historic bipartisan immigration reform bill.

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That bill was heavily shaped by Marco Rubio – much to his subsequent regret – and contained a long-term path to legal status and citizenship for many undocumented immigrants. It subsequently died in the Republican controlled House, where conservatives were adamantly opposed to any reforms.

Trump and far right conservatives like Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Rep. Steve King of Iowa denounced that legislation as “amnesty” that would reward criminals and scofflaws living illegally in this country and taking advantage of schools and social services. They argued that many illegals refused to play by the rules and wanted to cut into line ahead of others from overseas who have spent years seeking green cards or U.S. citizenship.

During the primaries, Trump lambasted Cruz for supporting a path to legal status for immigrants and he even ran an ad portraying Cruz as favoring the hated “amnesty.” During the 2013 Senate debate, Cruz had proposed a rider to the reform bill that would have eliminated its path to citizenship but left intact a path to legal status, so that illegal immigrants could remain in the country and work.

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Now Trump is essentially echoing Cruz’s views by calling for some sort of path to legal status. The billionaire businessman may be winning some kudos from disaffected Hispanics or more mainstream Republicans who favor a more humane approach to immigration reform, but he is rocking his conservative base and may suffer a serious backlash.

King, the Iowa Republican and arch opponent of immigration reform, tried during an interview on CNN earlier this week to put a positive spin on Trump’s comments, especially relating to mass deportation. But King stressed that if Trump moved off his position on amnesty, it “would be a mistake.” 

Ann Coulter, the conservative author and TV personality, also appeared to be struggling to reconcile Trump’s fast-evolving position with where he stood during the primary campaign. She wrote in her newly released book, In Trump We Trust, that the only unforgivable sin Trump could commit would be to shift his stand on immigration.

The New York Times reported that many conservatives – and some of his former primary rivals – are up in arms about Trump’s shifting positions. Bush said during an interview on ABC Radio that Trump’s latest comments were “abhorrent” and that “I don’t know what to believe about a guy who doesn’t believe in things.”

“Betraying his base and making clear that, a year after he launched his campaign, he still doesn’t know really what he wants to do on immigration, is really the last straw, it seems to me,” Mark Krikorian, of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, told The New York Times.

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Precisely what Trump’s motivation is in tempering his views on immigration is not clear. With an eye to the polls showing that his harsh views and anti-immigrant rhetoric has alienated many Hispanic voters and more mainstream Republicans, especially women, Trump may be trying to woo some of that support back.

Since last week’s shakeup of Trump’s campaign organization that left veteran pollster Kellyanne Conway the new campaign manager, Trump has issued a generalized apology for offending people and began talking about a more humane approach to immigration reform. (Conway is more likely to be behind this policy shift than Steve Bannon, the far right Breitbart News executive who is now chairing the Trump campaign.)

Trump, of course, is inclined to change his mind every time he opens his mouth, so this latest move towards a more moderate immigration approach may prove to be short-lived, especially if Trump begins to feel real heat from the far right.

“I think it was a serious mistake on his part,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist.  “It’s important for him to have that core group with him, and I think that any backsliding on that is going to” seriously hurt him.

“I think there are people who support him strictly because of his hardline position on immigration,” he added. “He wanted to modify his position to make it seem less harsh, but I think that from the point of view of his supporters he went much too far in the other direction.”