GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump made his sharpest departure yet from his previous statements on immigration, suggesting he would support a policy allowing some undocumented immigrants to remain in the country, at a town hall on Wednesday night.
Trump has built his campaign on harsh rhetoric about immigrants. Over the past year, the candidate has smeared immigrants as criminals and rapists, threatened to make Mexico pay to build a border wall, promised to create a “deportation force” to round up and kick out millions of people, suggested creating a database to track Muslims entering the country, and mocked other Republicans who take a softer approach to the issue.
On Wednesday, during the second part of a two-night town hall that aired on Fox News, Trump drew a clear distinction between two types of undocumented immigrants: a “bad” criminal immigrant who should be deported and a person who’s lived here for decades for whom deportation would be a “hard thing” to consider.
“You have somebody that has been in the country for 20 years,” Trump said. “He has done a great job. Has a job, everything else. OK. Do we take him and the family, her or him or whatever, and send them out?”
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Trump said that allowing some undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States would not amount to “amnesty” because those people would not gain U.S. citizenship and would be required to pay back taxes. Still, he said, his administration would “work with them.”
This rhetoric from Trump sounds very similar to immigration policy plans supported by his former rivals Jeb Bush and John Kasich — plans that Trump has previously fiercely mocked.
This is basically Jeb's position. Guess Trump is the biggest cuck of them all. https://t.co/7wbljRObtd
— Tim Miller (@Timodc) August 24, 2016
Trump, in excerpt of townhall with Hannity, on what to do with undocumented immigrants. Whooo boy: pic.twitter.com/VT5mE1EXpZ
— Phil Mattingly (@Phil_Mattingly) August 24, 2016
Bush, who faced criticism from his fellow Republicans for saying that undocumented immigrants come to the country out of “an act of love” for their families, favored a path to legal status and proposed immigrants should learn English and pay back taxes. Kasich also drew a fine distinction between criminal immigrants and other undocumented immigrants, saying that allowing the latter category to remain in the country was “common sense.”
Trump called Bush and Kasich “weak” on immigration, and even released a Willie Horton-type ad that superimposed photos of criminal immigrants charged with murder with Bush’s “act of love” comments.
Trump has the same immigration position as these guys now because nothing matters: pic.twitter.com/E0HUQknYxu
— andrew kaczynski 🤔 (@KFILE) August 25, 2016
Last year, Trump also criticized former presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) for abandoning his comprehensive immigration reform bill — which would have granted a path to citizenship— and taking on a more restrictive position only after his poll numbers slid.
Marco Rubio is a member of the Gang Of Eight or, very weak on stopping illegal immigration. Only changed when poll numbers crashed.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2015
Ironically, as he’s faced with falling support among minority voters, Trump now appears to be doing the same, albeit in reverse: abandoning his own harsh rhetoric in favor of a plan that does not unilaterally deport the undocumented population.
A Gallup poll from July shows that 76 percent of Republican voters support providing a path to legal citizenship for undocumented immigrants (compared to 62 percent who support building a border wall, a promise on which Trump has never wavered). And a majority of young Republicans see immigrants as a net positive to the American way of life, a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll from March found.
It’s difficult to interpret what Trump’s actual stance on immigration reform might be. The candidate’s back-and-forth statements about how he favors treating undocumented immigrants haven’t yielded a specific policy plan. To make matters more confusing, Trump’s campaign spokespeople claim that — despite his newfound compassion toward some undocumented immigrants — his position on the issue has been consistent.
“His position has not changed: American workers first, American security first,” Julie Kirchner, Trump’s immigration policy adviser, said in a statement on Wednesday evening following his comments on Fox News. “We are in the midst of a border crisis, a jobs crisis, and a security crisis.”
Trump’s latest statements aren’t enough for immigrant rights groups that have been offended by the candidate’s abrasive rhetoric throughout the campaign.
During a press call on Tuesday, Frank Sharry, the executive director of the immigrant rights organization America’s Voice, criticized Trump’s shifting rhetoric as “a cynical attempt… to reach out to suburban Republican voters to convince them that they’re not as racist as they’ve been.”
Esther Yu Hsi Lee contributed reporting.