U.S. Border Patrol agents detain undocumented immigrants after a foot chase on July 25, 2014, near Falfurrias, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Donald Trump spent much of the GOP presidential primary hyping his “deportation force” and promising to deport millions of people. In the general election he publicly agonized: Did he really want to forcibly round up 11 million people? In his Arizona speech he sure sounded like he wanted to kick everyone else, but he and his spinners continued to fudge. Their “priority” would be kicking out criminals. But must everyone else go too?

At the third debate we got Donald Trump’s final answer: “As far as moving these people out and moving — we either have a country or we don’t. We’re a country of laws. We either have a border or we don’t.”

And we got Hillary Clinton’s best rebuttal to the no-legalization/mass-deportation crowd:

I don’t want to rip families apart. I don’t want to be sending parents away from children. I don’t want to see the deportation force that Donald has talked about in action in our country.

We have 11 million undocumented people. They have 4 million American citizen children, 15 million people. He said as recently as a few weeks ago in Phoenix that every undocumented person would be subject to deportation. Now, here’s what that means. It means you would have to have a massive law enforcement presence, where law enforcement officers would be going school to school, home to home, business to business, rounding up people who are undocumented. And we would then have to put them on trains, on buses to get them out of our country.

I think that is an idea that is not in keeping with who we are as a nation. I think it’s an idea that would rip our country apart.

She is right on two counts — that is what he is proposing (he did not quibble with her characterization) and Americans do not want that.

It turns out the country is overwhelmingly with her on this one. The talk-radio demagogues and the more respectable anti-immigrant publications and pundits always insisted the country was with them. That is false, and Trump’s signature issue gets a big thumbs-down from the voters. (It actually got a thumbs-down among GOP primary voters as well, as evidenced by exit polling.) Recent polling shows just how unpopular his mass deportation and wall are.

A recent survey for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that “an overall majority of Americans (58 percent) say that illegal immigrants currently working in the United States should be allowed to stay and pursue a path to citizenship.” The most recent Fox News poll finds that 74 percent of all respondents say we should give illegal immigrants a pathway to legal status; only 18 percent want to deport as many as possible. The anti-immigrant outfits such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the conservatives who spout its made-up facts represent a fairly small minority of voters.

We do wish Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), who personally believes in immigration reform and understands it is part of a pro-growth agenda, would recognize his party is hugely out of step with voters. One wishes he had the nerve to confront the small group of backbenchers who oppose any feasible immigration-reform plan. It might go some distance in redeeming him for his atrocious lack of moral courage in endorsing — and sticking with — Trump. And with a closely divided Senate, there might actually be a bill that addresses both border security and a path to legalization.

Right now, House hardliners, Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and most of the right-wing media (including conservative pundits who badly misrepresent the extent of illegal immigration and distort the impact of immigration on native-born workers) do not represent the country’s thinking on immigration. The immigration restrictionists might want to reconsider the efficacy of maintaining such an unpopular position (which is unwise economically to boot) that alienates large segments of the country.

On the other hand, the rump GOP could stay where it its with its sliver of a sliver of an aging electorate. The sane center-right — in the mold of the Gang of Eight and conservative independent Evan McMullin — could embrace responsible reform on this and a host of issues that are actually popular with voters and in accord with conservative principles. They stand to pick up many groups that have viewed the GOP as anti-immigrant and/or economically short-sighted. As the old white males who comprised Trump’s base (and Fox News’s TV audience) literally die off over the ensuing decades, there will be insufficient numbers to stand on the hill of irrational and unpopular stances like immigration restrictionism. By then, however, the GOP could be long gone, which it will if it doesn’t wise up on this and a host of other issues.