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Can Trump Have It Both Ways on Immigration?

GOP presidential candidate's deportation position still unclear

Demonstrators outside the National Republican Senatorial Committee in May while Donald Trump was meeting with Senate Republican leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Demonstrators outside the National Republican Senatorial Committee in May while Donald Trump was meeting with Senate Republican leaders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Four hundred and thirty-three days since Donald Trump referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as drug-toting, crime-committing “rapists,” the Republican presidential nominee is set to kick off a week of immigration-themed campaign stops. The events come amid a recent campaign shakeup and efforts to reverse his sliding poll numbers.

But it’s unclear exactly what he’ll say.

Trump has called for the deportation of millions of people in the country illegally and for the construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border since announcing his bid for president last June.

But following a Buzzfeed report that he told his Hispanic advisors this weekend that he would consider offering undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, Trump’s campaign is struggling to clarify its stance.

Asked on CBS’ “Face the Nation” whether the real estate mogul was sticking with his mass deportation plans, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a campaign adviser, said “he’s wrestling with how to do that.”

Speaking to Fox News on Monday, Trump said he is not shifting his stance.

“We want to come up with a really fair, but firm answer,” he said. “It has to be very firm. But we want something fair.”

Immigration experts on both ends of the political spectrum have long lamented the vagueness of Trump’s policy proposals. And they are skeptical that Trump could offer a softened approach to immigration enforcement without abandoning the fiery rhetoric that won him support among Republican primary voters.

“I don’t see any way that he can put forth now a policy on providing some kind of legalized path for those that are undocumented without completely contradicting the hardline approach he had advocated for in the past,” said Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Those just do not sit, at all, side-by-side in any way.”

Chen said Trump could theoretically maintain a tough-on-enforcement stance that might appeal to voters currently skeptical of his harsh rhetoric by adopting a nuanced approach similar to the priority-based system unveiled by President Barack Obama in 2014.

“However, I don’t think Trump can put those ideas forward without appearing to have made a complete reversal of his past statements,” Chen said.

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said he would view any attempt by Trump to alter his stance as the “evolution of his position from the initial knee-jerk, barstool philosophizing to something that’s actually a real policy.”

Krikorian said even immigration restrictionists like himself had never called for mass deportation of millions of people because “it’s just not going to happen.” But, he said, Trump could support some measure of “amnesty” without sacrificing his deportation plans.

“Once we have documented declines in the illegal populations over a period of several years, then we talk about whether and how the amnesty [happens],” said Krikorian.

In the meantime, Krikorian said, Trump could offer a more measured approach.

“A balanced position for Trump would be that all illegals are always deportable at all times, but that the way you enforce the law is not necessarily rounding them all up and deporting them,” he said.

For instance, Krikorian said, Trump could argue for deporting any undocumented immigrant who comes into contact with the police. And he could push for enforcement of existing immigration laws designed to “make it hard to find a job, hard to make living here a practical matter” for undocumented residents.

“It’s not your Uncle-George-at-Thanksgiving-dinner position,” Krikorian said. “But it’s more an actual thought-out policy position.”

Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, has staked out positions on immigration that are similarly objectionable to many conservatives. 

Clinton, who has pushed for a path to citizenship for the undocumented population, said in March that she would not deport children or immigrants without a criminal record.

Both candidates have ample opportunity to seize some of the middle ground in the immigration debate before November.

“I think there are a number of policy steps that candidate Trump could use and put forth that would appeal to Latino voters, broadly to American voters, on immigration that are not exactly what candidate Clinton has put forth,” Chen said.

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