DES MOINES — Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sounded off forcefully on immigration policy and deportations Saturday, vowing to start removing undocumented criminals “within one hour” of taking office, but providing no indication how he would approach the millions of other undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
"We are going to get rid of the criminals and it's going to happen within one hour after I take office, we start, okay?" Trump said during a campaign event in Des Moines on Saturday. "We're going to bring them back where they came from. In this task, we will always err on the side of protecting the American people. We will use immigration law to prevent crimes."
Trump’s latest comments on immigration policy followed a week of intense confusion over his stance on mass deportations. At various points this week, he and his campaign signaled that they were open to softening his hard-line position calling for a “deportation force” to remove 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. During a meeting with Hispanic advisers last Saturday, he signaled that all options were on the table — a sharp departure from his previous stance — which his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, suggested Sunday as well.
The GOP nominee further signaled Wednesday during an interview with Fox News that he would be willing to work with undocumented immigrants on their residency if they paid back taxes. The potential softening drew concerns from many of his high-profile conservative supporters, including author and conservative celebrity Ann Coulter, who worried his efforts represented a political capitulation to the center.
On Thursday, during an interview with CNN, he backed away from those statements and clarified that, under his plan, undocumented immigrants would not be eligible to receive legal status without first leaving the United States. That approach is known in policy circles as a "touchback."
Trump has insisted this week that his position has not changed. He has remained steadfast on the central pillar of his immigration policy: his vow to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Saturday, he detailed several specific policies he would implement to keep immigrants from entering the country illegally, including expanding the E-Verify program that allows employers to determine whether an immigrant is eligible to work in the U.S., and developing a tracking system to enforce expired visas. He is expected to announce a clearer immigration policy in the coming weeks.
But he has not specified what he would do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants. On Saturday, he blasted the press for asking for clarification.
"In recent days, the media — as it usually does — has missed the whole point on immigration. All the media wants to talk about is the 11 million or more people here illegally,” he said. “But my priority is the well-being of 300 million American citizens, including millions of Hispanic citizens and legal residents who want a secure border, a safe and drug-free community, and a growing economy.”
Trump was in Des Moines to attend Iowa’s “Roast and Ride,” a fundraising event hosted by Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) to honor veterans. Ernst spoke warmly about Trump during a speech.
Bales of hay and oversized American flags decorated the pavilion where Trump spoke, after hundreds sorted themselves into bleachers along the wall or onto chairs perched on the loose-dirt floor. Blackened pigs' heads adorned tables outside, where attendees lined up for pork chops, potato salad and refried beans.
Ernst dismissed questions Saturday about controversy swirling around the Trump campaign’s CEO, Stephen Bannon, amid revelations that his wife once accused him of domestic violence and of making anti-Semitic statements.
“Allegations. So I can’t speak to that. Allegations. I don’t get into the hiring practices of his campaign but I do want to hear about policy,” she said.
Pressed on whether she would have hired someone who made anti-Semitic statements, she responded carefully: “I probably wouldn’t. But again that would need to come up before the hiring process ever started. But again, not my area.”
On Friday, Ernst demurred when asked about Trump’s accusations that Clinton is a “bigot,” which has drawn condemnation from his critics.
“I’m not going to get into that,” she said. “To both of them, I’d say, they need to take this into a civil discourse. I don’t like it when campaigns go that direction. I’d say to both of them, back down. And let’s really talk about the policies and the issues. That’s my advice to them.”