So, will Donald Trump get rid of all undocumented immigrants or what?

Trump's policy positions have been the subject of a bizarre guessing game this week, after the Republican presidential nominee hinted that his hardline views on undocumented immigrants might be "softening." Even his spokesmen and surrogates have struggled to interpret what that means. To some extent the vagueness may be intentional.

Trump has said he would force undocumented immigrants to leave the country as president, but some are questioning whether that's still the plan. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

From the very outset of his campaign, Trump distinguished himself from other candidates by his extreme views on immigration. While his GOP rivals endorsed proposals for the undocumented to gain legal status, Trump made a mantra of mass deportations, Muslim bans and that Mexican border wall of ever-increasing height. His headline-grabbing statements about immigrants being rapists and drug dealers electrified core supporters, who sent him to the top of the GOP primaries.

Now under pressure to broaden his appeal, Trump has been attempting the classic general election pivot. His main task is to temper his reputation as a nativist — and, some say, racist — firebrand. But how do you walk back a promise to deport the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants?

Awkwardly, it seems. Trump said Wednesday that he would first “get the bad ones out” — deport the “gang members” and “killers.” But the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are not criminals. In fact, studies show they are less likely to commit crimes.

Trump said he would work with undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for a while, who have contributed to their communities, and who have "done a great job.” He insisted that there would be no citizenship or amnesty. But he left open the question of what their legal status might be.

“So do we tell these people to get out or do we work with them and let them stay in some form?” he asked the crowd at a televised town hall on Fox Wednesday night.

As many have pointed out, Trump’s latest evolution on immigration brings him closer and closer to President Obama’s current immigration policy, which prioritizes deporting immigrants who have been convicted of crimes. For the law-abiding, the Obama administration has been much more lenient.

In 2012, the White House set up a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to work and live in the country without fear of deportation if they meet certain requirements. DACA was a consolation prize after congressional Democrats failed to pass the Dream Act, which would have provided these young adults with a path to permanent legal status. Immigrants who have received a permit under DACA must renew it every two years, and there’s no saying what will happen to them in the long term. But in the meantime, they get Social Security cards and can work legally, apply for driver's licenses, establish credit histories and so on.

DACA is a half-measure, but all signs indicate it’s already had a huge impact on the nation's undocumented residents. A pair of recent studies suggest that the program has reduced poverty among eligible households by up to a third and even prompted some young adults to drop out of school so they could work.

This new research comes from economists Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes of San Diego State University and Francisca Antman of the University of Colorado at Boulder. The pair used Census Bureau data to compare immigrants who were eligible for DACA to similar immigrants who failed to meet one of the requirements for the program.

The economists did not know precisely who was or was not here legally because the federal surveys did not ask that question. Instead, they predicted who would likely be undocumented according to their demographic profiles. Their work focused on Mexicans who were not U.S. citizens because past studies have shown that many people in that group do not have legal status.

Only people who were younger than 31 in 2012 were eligible to apply for DACA. So the economists compared noncitizens just above and just below that age threshold, controlling for characteristics such as age, gender, educational attainment, marital status and the health of the local economy. Before DACA, these similar groups of immigrants had similar levels of poverty. After DACA, their fates diverged. The DACA-eligible grew less likely to live in poverty, while those who had missed the cutoff became more likely to live in poverty, in large part because of trends in the economy.

All in all, Amuedo-Dorantes and Antman said that DACA has had a protective effect. The program helped people earn more money, likely by getting them better jobs. This made families 38 percent less likely to live in poverty than otherwise. (In other words, there was about a 10 percentage-point change in a population where about 30 percent lived in poverty.)

The story here aligns with the results from surveys of DACA recipients. According to a 2015 study from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, DACA recipients with jobs reported earning 45 percent more after getting their permit to work legally. About 57 percent of them said they got a job that “better fits my education and training,” and 54 percent said they got a job with “improved working conditions.”

In a related paper, Amuedo-Dorantes and Antman found that, because of DACA, some undocumented immigrants were even forgoing higher education so they could work. This time the researchers looked at younger immigrants, between 18 and 24 years old. After the program came into effect, DACA-eligible immigrants became about 28 percent less likely to be in school relative to the DACA-ineligible, and about 20 percent more likely to be employed.

Here, the difference between the DACA-eligible and ineligible mostly involved how long they had been in the county. DACA requires applicants to have arrived in the United States before 2007, and before their 16th birthday. Those who missed the cutoffs couldn’t work in the country legally, so college became a more attractive option. But those who were suddenly able to get legal jobs appeared to leap at that opportunity.

A recent Supreme Court decision halted the Obama administration’s efforts to expand its deportation leniency program to include more young adults and even their parents. But these studies show us what might happen to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants if the next administration permits them to work legally — which most of them desperately desire to do.

Trump, like many of his fellow GOP candidates, has opposed executive orders such as DACA. He called the measure "one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president" and vowed last year to rescind such programs if he takes office. He has talked, famously, of creating a "deportation force" to expel all undocumented immigrants.

This week, however, Trump began to acknowledge that the reality is much more complicated than his campaign rhetoric.

Most of the nation's undocumented are not rapists or murderers or other types of criminals. Most of them came here to work. Most of them are already employed in off-the-book jobs. If the U.S. government allows them legal employment, the data suggest that they will find more valuable ways of contributing to the economy, and that more of them will escape poverty.

In doing so, perhaps they will take jobs away from legal U.S. citizens — or perhaps they won't. The evidence is unclear on the labor market impacts. Some argue that low-skill immigrants tend to compete for different kinds of jobs than low-skill American workers. Yet, many undocumented immigrants, particularly the young adults targeted by DACA, are indistinguishable from legal U.S. citizens. They've grown up here and think of themselves as American. Given the opportunity, they are likely to compete for some of the same kinds of jobs. This might offend the people who fear that undocumented immigrants will unfairly benefit by cutting in line.

Others, however, think of immigrants not as interlopers but as resources. There are millions of people living in America with talent and potential but without legal status. We could let them work, legally, to improve their lives and lift up their communities. We could maintain the status quo, leading them to take furtive jobs washing dishes and clipping hedges. Or we could round them up and deport them. Research suggests the first option would benefit the U.S. economy the most.

It's not clear anymore which option Donald Trump favors.