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Opinion Trump’s challenge: How to sell deportations to suburban swing voters

(AFP photo/Molly Riley)

There’s a lot of confusion out there about where Donald Trump stands on immigration. Bill O’Reilly did a reasonably good job of trying to pin Trump down last night, and revealed some important things about just how fraudulent Trump’s analysis of our immigration mess really is, but there’s still a good deal to clarify about his own stance.

So, if I were fortunate enough to score a major interview with Trump, I would ask him this simple question:

You have made a distinction between undocumented immigrants who are serious criminals, and those you view as “the good ones.” If you are elected president, is there any scenario under which the latter group will be able to get on a path to legal status, without leaving the country first?

If Trump says Yes, then the question is: How would you do that? (Trump won’t say Yes.) If Trump says No, or even if he declines to answer directly, and says (as he has before) that all the “good ones” can come back if they leave first, the next questions for him are:

Okay, does that mean you will take concrete steps — such as stepping up deportation raids and asking Congress to appropriate enormous sums of money — to expedite the deportations of all those here illegally? Or will you continue to carry out deportations in proportion with current funding levels — which only permit for the removal of a fraction of the undocumented population? If it’s the latter, and you prioritize the removal of the most serious criminals first, what will happen to the rest in the interim? Will they simply remain in the shadows? For how long? Is the goal to get them to self-deport?

These questions will also be relevant if Trump does eventually give a speech clarifying his stance. As of now, Trump has said that under current law (meaning under current funding levels), we should prioritize the removals of serious criminals. But he has not said what should happen to all the rest — he would leave them subject to deportation later.

In one sense, Trump is essentially sanitizing his mass deportations stance. Frank Sharry of America’s Voice emailed me some thoughts on Trump’s latest, arguing that he isn’t really changing his position in any meaningful sense:

Kellyanne Conway wants to get suburbanites who don’t want to vote for a racist, especially women, to come home. They’ve figured out that Trump’s mass deportation stance is an impediment to that (something tons of polling confirms). But Trump is so identified with a hard line on the issue with his base, he (with her guidance) is trying to shed the mass deportation label (unpopular) with an approach that emphasizes enforcing current law, protecting wages of Americans and doing it in an undefined “fair and humane” way.
He’s trying to make us believe he’s changing his policies when in fact it’s an attempt to have it both ways. He’s telling the base, “I might not be saying anything about mass deportations and deportation forces, but don’t worry, it will amount to the same hard-edged approach.” But he’s telling suburban voters, “I’m not talking about mass deportation and deportation forces, I’m talking about the normal application of law and removing people who have broken the law, with an initial emphasis on bad guys, just like Bush and Obama did. And if those removed want to come in legally all they have to do is apply once they’ve left the country.” (That sounds reasonable to the uninformed but means in real life that they will never be able to come back.)
This is a PR strategy to de-radicalize his mass deportation policy without changing the policy itself.

If this is right — and I think it probably is — then the goal of his new formula is to let the hard core Trumpist base know that he is fully committed to removing all undocumented immigrants, while simultaneously repackaging the process necessary to accomplish that end in a manner that is more acceptable to suburban swing voters. As Sharry notes, this accomplishes both of these ends.

As Brian Beutler explains, Trump is not budging off the idea that all illegal immigrants are nothing more than criminals who can never be assimilated here. He’s simply trying to make the response he’s proposing sound a bit more humane so it doesn’t alienate whites who aren’t hostile towards illegal immigrants — or at least see the moral and practical complexities their situations present — but not so humane, forgiving and (gasp!!!) assimilationist that it alienates core base voters.

Trump’s answer: We won’t unleash a jack-booted Trumpian Deportation Force and we’ll start by only getting tough on the worst criminals that everyone agrees must go (don’t worry, swing voters); but still, all undocumented immigrants remain subject to removal and will not be placed on a path to legalization without leaving the country first (don’t worry, restrictionist Trumpkin base); and yet you should rest assured, Trump loves Good Undocumented Immigrants and they will be able to get right with the law by coming back later (don’t worry, swing voters); but in the real world that is very unlikely to happen (don’t worry, restrictionist Trumpkin base).

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Indeed, it’s revealing that hard-core immigration hawks are not hearing anything alarming in Trump’s new rhetoric. As one of them told Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur, there isn’t much daylight between mass deportations and his current stance, because Trump still remains committed to solving the problem as restrictionists define it: “how we shrink the illegal immigrant population, how we get them to leave.”

This is still how Trump defines the problem, too, and restrictionists see the wink in Trump’s new rhetoric. Hopefully the next person who scores an interview with Trump can pin that down with more clarity.