Trump still tough on immigration, but softens slightly

In Phoenix, Trump reprised his calls for a wall, but backed away from his previous vow to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.

Matt York/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump embraces a mother who child was killed by a person living in the country without legal permission after delivering an immigration policy speech on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, in Phoenix.

Donald Trump’s tone about undocumented immigrants is as tough as ever. But his proposed policies for dealing with the estimated 11 million people resident in the US illegally showed just the smallest glimmer of a softening.

That’s perhaps the bottom line from Trump’s much-anticipated speech on immigration policy in Arizona on Wednesday night.

In some ways the address induced a bit of whiplash in anyone who’d followed the subject over the last week. Trump and some Trump surrogates have used different words, such as “humane” and “compassionate,” in regards to immigration in recent weeks. Wednesday morning Trump’s surprise visit to Mexico seemed a harbinger of a more subdued – some would say realistic – message. He thanked Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and emphasized the ties between the two countries.

But in Phoenix the persona that might be called Rally Trump reappeared. Trump was all zing and zap, emphasizing from the very beginning that he would build a wall, a physical wall, a big beautiful impenetrable wall “with above and below ground sensors,” to secure the nation’s southern border.

Eventually he lumped rival Hillary Clinton in with undocumented criminals and mused about whether he should deport her, too.

Pared down, Trump’s policy message might be this: He would prioritize the removal of undocumented criminals who have committed crimes. Estimates from pro- and anti-immigration groups put this number at anywhere from 690,000 to 2 million people.

He said that police and other law enforcement officers know who these people are and are prevented from arresting them. There’s little evidence to back up that claim and the Obama administration has prioritized the removal of criminal undocumented immigrants, as Trump himself has acknowledged in the past.

“Day one, my first hour in office, those people are gone,” Trump said in Phoenix.

Trump added that he would prioritize removal of people who have overstayed visas in the US. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that about 525,000 visitors overstayed their visas in fiscal 2015 – a rate of about 1.1 percent of all such visitors.

Then Trump said he would triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and create a new “special deportation task force” to chase the most serious threats.

He said he would cancel the “illegal” Obama executive orders that have allowed some undocumented immigrants to remain in the US, such as the so-called “Dreamers,” children who were brought in illegally by their parents. And he vowed to eliminate what he called the lure of legal status, something which he insisted draws hundreds of thousands of people into the US.

“We will break the cycle of amnesty,” he said.

Except . . .

Trump did back away from his previous vow to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US. Or, at least, he talked about it in a much longer time frame.

What he said was that after his tough enforcement measures are in place, and after, as he put it, “illegal immigration is ended,” then the US can have a discussion about what to do with those undocumented immigrants who chose to ride out his policies and remain in the US during that time.

“Trump didn’t say it, but most Republican immigration hawks would interpret that to mean that some sort of legal status would lie in the future for those illegal immigrants who wait for years until enforcement is fully enacted,” writes the right-leaning columnist Byron York of the Washington Examiner.

But this is a subtle point, and given the context of Trump’s insistence on other tougher measures, Trump supporters who had worried that he might be softening his immigration measures in a significant way were relieved and pleased at his overall approach.

“I hear Churchill had a nice turn of phrase, but Trump’s immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given,” tweeted conservative author Ann Coulter after it was over.

On the other hand, one key Latino supporter of Trump’s candidacy expressed regret and anguish over the GOP nominee’s words.

“This is how I feel: disappointed and misled,” tweeted Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, following Trump’s Phoenix address.

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