You’ve probably heard a lot of people say that Donald Trump is “softening” on immigration. But this doesn’t reflect a meaningful shift in Trump’s priorities as much as it reflects a clever rhetorical trick his campaign has been playing. That should become clear when he delivers his speech on the issue tomorrow, though he may well try to keep this trick going.
But now Don Trump Jr. has made it as clear as you could want that there is no significant overall shift in Trump’s posture. In an interview with Anderson Cooper that is set to air tonight, Don Jr. clarifies that under Trump’s plan, all the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country will remain targets for deportation.
Here, from CNN’s transcript, is the exchange, which concerns the recent episode in which Trump seemed to poll his audience on whether they supported mass deportations (hat tip to Sopan Deb for the catch):
DONALD TRUMP JR.: He wasn’t softening on anything. He didn’t change his stance on anything….He’s actually having a conversation. He basically surveyed the room….He’s actually having a conversation with the people of this country….He asked an opinion. He didn’t say, well my policies now changed. He didn’t say that. Now, the media will run with it however they want. But that’s not what actually happened and I was in the room.ANDERSON COOPER: It did seem some viewers though who we talked to, that it seemed like, he’s polling the room, he’s not quite sure what his own policy is.TRUMP JR.: He was asking for an opinion. His policy has been the same for the last you know, six, seven, eight months.COOPER: He still says deport, they all gotta go…TRUMP JR.: That’s been the same, correct. But again, you have to start with baby steps. You have to let ICE do their job, you have to eliminate sanctuary cities, you have to get rid of the criminals certainly first and foremost, you have to secure the border. These are common sense things.
This represents a small shift in one sense: Trump is no longer promising that a souped-up Trumpian deportation force, funded by the huge appropriations from Congress that this would require, will carry out the proactive, immediate, and (of course) humane deportation of 11 million people. Trump did say repeatedly throughout the primaries that he would do this, through “good management.” Now his position is that they all gotta go, but he’ll start with the criminals.
It’s been widely observed that this constitutes an endorsement of Barack Obama’s enforcement priorities. For five years now, Obama has been trying to focus enforcement resources on the most serious criminals and most recent border crossers. And it’s correct that Trump’s latest rhetoric constitutes an admission that Obama’s priorities are right. But this is only true in a very limited way, and the nuance here is enormously important.
Obama’s position — and Hillary Clinton would continue this approach — is not simply that we should remove the criminals first. It’s also that all of the rest should be legalized — their removal should be taken off the table entirely — in order to facilitate efforts to focus enforcement resources on the most serious criminals and border crossers.
There has long been a bipartisan consensus in this country — though Republican leaders have sometimes had to submerge their agreement with it — that the way to deal with the 11 million that would best serve the national interest is to assimilate longtime low level offenders with jobs and ties to communities, to streamline and rationalize our enforcement approach. This consensus has both a practical and a moral dimension. The practical one is that limited enforcement resources demand such a prioritization and that deporting all the rest would be hugely costly and disruptive. The moral one is — as most lawmakers agree — that many undocumented immigrants are more than mere lawbreakers. Many emigrated out of morally complex circumstances. Many were trying to better their lives and their families’ prospects in a manner that seems in keeping with American values and American history. Many currently contribute to American life. Deporting them would be cruel and an overly onerous punishment, given all of these interlocking circumstances.
Some Republican leaders, such as Paul Ryan and John Boehner, have long believed this. They agree with these practical imperatives and recognize that long term demographic and political realities also compel this stance. But when they had the chance, House Republicans could not not bring themselves to vote on any compromise solution that would realize some form of legalization or assimilation, because they apparently thought the GOP base would not allow it. As Speaker, Boehner famously mocked GOP lawmakers who were afraid of the base on this issue, but ultimately, he declined to hold a vote. This broader set of truths is what Jeb Bush tried to tell Republican primary voters over two years ago, in that widely ridiculed moment when he described illegal immigration as an “act of love.” Trump, of course, effortlessly swatted aside Jeb and Marco Rubio (who had also gamely tried to tell these truths to GOP voters while championing the Senate Gang of Eight bill), by vowing mass deportations and a border wall.
Trump is now edging away from proactive, souped-up mass deportations. But he has not backed away from his core position in the fundamental underlying dispute, which is that all the 11 million will still be targeted for removal, and cannot be legalized or assimilated. (For practical reasons, Trump’s suggestion that “the good ones” can become legal after leaving and returning is tantamount to ruling out any meaningful path to legalization, and his speech tomorrow may further clarify this.) People currently hear Trump waffle on the idea of a “deportation force,” and they think he is undergoing a fundamental change. But this simply is not correct. As Dem strategist Simon Rosenberg puts it, “we already have a deportation force.” It’s the Department of Homeland Security. Trump is simply saying that all of the 11 million will be targeted for removal by our current deportation machinery, but we’re going to start with the criminals first, because they are more of a threat.
Trump has tweaked his rhetoric in this way — likely under the tutelage of Kellyanne Conway and Roger Ailes — to make his overall long-term goal (total removal) sound more sensible and humane. Who doesn’t support targeting the worst criminals first? Trump’s formulation tries to keep it vague on the long-term fate of all the rest — they are targets for removal later, but who knows, maybe we can work something out, he seems to be hinting — while letting the hardliners know that long term assimilation will never happen under President Trump, and shrinkage and removal are the goals instead.
Under relentless media scrutiny — and under intense pressure to improve among the college educated and suburban white swing voters who support assimilation, recoil at mass deportations, and believe Trump is running a racist campaign — Trump has shaded his position back to the longtime stance adopted by many Republicans. That position is this: We can’t say we’re for deporting everybody, so we’ll instead say we’ll start with the criminals and ‘enforce the law’ to ultimately deal with all the rest. Trump’s position has basically reverted a bit to some form of Mitt Romney’s self deportation stance — which, by the way, Trump once ridiculed — combined with a more explicit declaration that the rest remain targets for removal, and a more overtly xenophobic emphasis on keeping the dark hordes out.
Now, to be clear, it’s always possible Trump and Don Jr. have no idea what they’re really saying, or that Trump’s position will be completely different when he delivers his speech tomorrow. But if it proves to be along the lines of what we’re hearing now, let’s not get scammed into calling it some kind of real “softening.”