Heading into Wednesday’s speech, the big question was whether Trump would continue “softening” on his core issue, making him a hypocrite, or revert back to his typical demagoguery, making him wrong and far outside the mainstream. Most of the speech — which included such points as: Hillary Clinton would bring “total chaos and lawlessness,” refugees are a “trojan horse,” the U.S. will build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern wall,” illegal immigrants are murdering people left and right — he chose “wrong.”
The one softer note came near the end, when Trump said this: “In several years, when we have accomplished all of our enforcement and deportation goals and truly ended illegal immigration for good…then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those individuals who remain.” In other words he would not deport all 11 million-or-so illegal immigrants living in the United States, and doing so is unnecessary to fix the immigration system. Trump left himself a smidgen of wiggle room — perhaps even enough to suggest he might offer legal status to some illegal immigrants during his administration.
Yet not even an eventual pathway to legal status could rehabilitate everything else he proposed — and render him a mere hypocrite. Though he did not promise to deport 11 million people, he nevertheless pledged to rapidly remove millions of people with deportation forces he would unleash into American communities.
Trump claimed that there are 2 million illegal immigrant criminals in the country. “We will begin moving them out. Day one,” he said. The police “know who these people are,” he insisted, conjuring images of officers rounding up people based on suspicions and prejudices. “My first hour in office, those people are gone,” he said. “The crime will be gone.” In fact, the most common type of felony conviction on illegal immigrants’ records concerns violating immigration law.
Then, Trump said, he would swell the number of federal deportation agents and remove “illegal immigrants who are arrested for any crime whatsoever” — arrested, not convicted. On top of that, he insisted that his program would “identify hundreds of thousands of deportable aliens in local jails that we don’t even know about.” And, remember, he also promised that all other illegal aliens would be “subject to deportation,” as well, even if they would be lower priority. These points suggest Trump plans to deport many more than 2 million people.
His deportation timetable was not crystal clear. But of the 2 million, he said, “They will go fast, believe me.” He also said his plan would accomplish more “in a matter of months” than American politicians have in 50 years.
To reinforce his point, Trump referred to Operation Wetback — though not by name. This was an Eisenhower-era deportation program that forcibly and quickly removed several hundred thousand illegal immigrants. A Post editorial from last year — Trump has been citing this program for a while — described the operation as “a disgraceful episode that involved inhumane treatment of Mexican migrants, an unknown number of whom died or were sickened by being forcibly relocated and in many cases deposited in sweltering, remote locations with little food or water. One observer depicted ‘indescribable scenes of human misery and tragedy.’”
But for Trump, the only problem with the operation was that it didn’t remove people a far enough distance from the U.S. border. Even the evidence Trump cites suggests that his immigration plan is about as soft as a rock to the head.