Opinion writer
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses during a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Altoona, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Donald Trump appears at a campaign rally this month in Altoona, Pa. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Donald Trump’s contortions over what was once his signature issue — mass deportation — is cause for grief among anti-immigration reform advocates. Rather than rant about Trump’s “betrayal” and moan that no politician can be trusted on this issue, they would do well to look in the mirror, where responsibility for this debacle originated.

It has been a great irony of this circus-like campaign that the guy who perched his campaign on unsustainable terrain on illegal immigration should be the one to realize that this is self-defeating nonsense. He now turns to the anti-reform pot stirrers to say, “I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and I’ve had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me, and they’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who’s been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,’ I have it all the time! It’s a very, very hard thing.” Despite the caterwauling from the right, this is not exactly a new thought.

Suddenly, Republicans discovered that deporting 11 million to 12 million people isn’t doable. Victor Davis Hanson, an immigration hard-liner, writes matter-of-factly in National Review that “practically” the solution was always to weed out the criminals and then allow law-abiding, longtime residents with jobs to pay a fine and get a green card. (He thinks the latter comprise only 70 percent; we find that far too low, but no matter.) What?! This is the dreaded amnesty, which National Review and other anti-immigration reform platforms decried.

It was this position for which Jeb Bush was vilified. Zero legalization became a virtual litmus test for right-wing candidates. Why was this “practical” solution never the real position of the right wing until Trump decided mass deportation might be, well, nuts? 

It’s curious if discerning critics of immigration reform actually understood the “practical” outcome that they nevertheless continued to bully Republicans to adopt the exceptionally “unpractical” zero  legalization stance and give a platform to groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies, FAIR and others who originated in the murky swamp of zero-population-growth and eugenics advocacy.

Remember, it was Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) who said he opposed any “amnesty” and insisted that all illegal immigrants would need to be deported, although maybe not right away. For this, he was praised by the Gang of Eight opponents. One wonders if the hard-line position had actually been the “practical one,” something that looked rather much like Bush’s plan, how the primary would have turned out.

Maybe the zero legalization stance was just a sop to the masses, a precursor to Trump’s efforts to play to the resentments of white voters. Maybe it was another obstructionist position (like insisting Obamacare could be repealed during President Obama’s tenure) destined to fail but helpful to raise money and create an angry grass-roots movement. In any event, while respectable conservatives who knew better (or surely should have known better) were holding to the zero legalization position, talk radio, a flock of right-wing activists and many ordinary Republicans never got the memo that the only practical solution was “amnesty” of some form. They thought zero legalization was the viable, practical solution. The joke was on them, I suppose.

Reince Priebus, whose intellectual integrity is in an undisclosed location, finally has remembered the so-called autopsy report, the GOP’s postmortem on the 2012 election. Oh, yes. Outreach! Comprehensive immigration reform! After carrying Trump’s water for more than a year and helping to normalize him with the GOP, he now confesses, “I’ll wait and see what Donald Trump ultimately decides. I’m not convinced he’s comfortable with the idea of trying to deport 12 million people. It’s not a practical place to be and I don’t necessarily think he was there.” So he knew Trump was never serious about a “deportation force”? Maybe Priebus, you know, should have spoken up or at least cautioned Trump not to advocate an intellectually dishonest and politically impossible position.

A lot of so-called respectable conservatives have been playing a very disingenuous game on immigration for many years. Pushing right-wing politicians and conservative media to stake out an absolutist stance while dubbing everything else “amnesty,” they deftly prevented any immigration solution and made enemies of the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. At some level, some (many?) of them knew that it was a canard. The country would never expel everyone who has come here illegally, even if such a thing were physically possible. Americans simply would not tolerate such a massive economic dislocation or be party to a program of utterly avoidable human misery. Adopting the absolutist stance nevertheless gave the right-wing a cudgel with which to beat other Republicans, rally the grass roots and raise a whole lot of money for Beltway groups (the kind that keep scorecards and plead for money to keep lawmakers in line). Maybe the anti-legalization zealots were also conning themselves. They did a bang-up job convincing a whole lot of Republicans that zero legalization was a viable position, indeed the only legitimate conservative position.

The Ted Cruzes and the Heritage Actions and National Reviews long ago should have fessed up. They should have been clear with activists and voters and then staked out ground they could actually hold onto. Spare the outrage and sense of “betrayal”; the anti-immigration crowd never should have started the zero-legalization charade in the first place.