Donald Trump, who has been testing rhetorical limits since he announced his candidacy, is now testing the limits to which he can meander on matters of policy – and particularly on a policy than has been central to his candidacy and his campaign.
Many believe that it was Trump’s firm stance on immigration that propelled him to victory in the Republican primaries. Since his entrance into the race in June 2015, the real-estate mogul has ignited crowds with promises to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and to deport the approximately 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally. Immigration hawks who have long been frustrated with the Republican party’s standard-bearers, from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney, agreed to support him despite other misgivings about his candidacy. So when Trump appeared on Sean Hannity’s television show on Wednesday evening and did an about-face on immigration, unleashing a word salad of policy jargon and telling the Fox News host that he would consider a “softening” of his position on deportation and a number of measures that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country, one would have predicted an outpouring of recriminations from them.
But there has been very little of that. Instead, many immigration hawks are defining success downward, and they remain confident that Trump will land on a sensible immigration policy — even if the events of the past week have made clear he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
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“Trump has not substantially deviated from his core position,” says Daniel Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates reductions in both legal and illegal immigration. “What fundamentally matters is two things: Is this a president who is going to carry out the law the way it’s written? And is this a president who is going to work to stop illegal immigration?”
“It looks, if this is true, that he is going to enforce the law against the worst of the worst. I don’t remember Jeb Bush talking about that,” talk radio host Laura Ingraham told Fox News. “Jeb Bush was talking about, ‘It’s an act of love.’”
And then there was Ann Coulter, who last week published the book In Trump We Trust. Coulter was critical of Trump’s remarks on Twitter, but the next day she told the Washington Times that it may be “in our interest” to let some illegal immigrants stay in the country. She made clear on Friday that she wasn’t abandoning the GOP nominee. “I know he wants to put Americans first and, in the end, he won’t be fooled by the amnesty fanatics and their legerdemain,” she told the website World Net Daily.
Trump has been something of a Rorschach test for many of his supporters. Activists of all types have interpreted his various and at times conflicting statements to mean that he was an advocate of their particular causes. Pro-life activists have tried to see in him a fellow pro-lifer, despite his praise for Planned Parenthood; the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups have worked to paint him as a defender of the Second Amendment, despite his call for gun-free zones; and Franklin Graham and other Evangelical leaders have compared him to the flawed biblical leaders Moses and David.
Given his emphasis on immigration in the primary, however, immigration hawks — in particular, the small circle of wonks, academics, politicians, and political pundits who have devoted their professional lives to advocating and advancing policies that would curb both legal and illegal immigration — have seen Trump’s success as evidence of the popular appeal of tightening the nation’s immigration laws. Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which has long advocated reductions in legal and illegal immigration, wrote in November that, while Trump himself might be “a buffoon,” he was nonetheless offering voters something none of his Republican challengers were: “a straightforward, unapologetic assertion of American interests.” At the Republican National Convention, Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, another group that advocates restrictions on immigration, told BuzzFeed News that Trump’s nomination was a “real peak.”
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Yet even in their view, Trump’s off-the-cuff policy proposals were problematic from the beginning. “NumbersUSA has always opposed mass deportation,” says Beck. “It’s impractical, it’s too expensive, and it’s unnecessary.”
Contrary to reports that warring camps within the Trump campaign are pulling the candidate in different directions on the issue, his advisers, including Alabama senator Jeff Sessions and senior policy aide Stephen Miller, have been nearly unanimous in urging him to back away from the sort of “deportation force” he promised to in the primary.
It’s a notion he first floated in November of last year, after praising Dwight Eisenhower’s immigration policies in a Republican debate. “Dwight Eisenhower, you don’t get nicer,” Trump said. “You don’t get friendlier. They moved 1.5 million out. We have no choice. We have no choice.” The following day, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he said he would create a “deportation force” to return illegal immigrants to Mexico.
“He had to walk back this ‘deport all the illegals with deportation squads,’” says Krikorian. “That was baloney, they should’ve fixed that the next day.”
Immigration-policy expert Mark Krikorian was going to vote for Trump in November. After the candidate’s utterances last week, he says, he’s not so sure.
It was in a meeting last weekend with his newly formed Hispanic advisory council that Trump first began to do so. He said there that he is interested in finding a “humane and efficient” manner to deal with those in the country illegally, according to a BuzzFeed News report. In the interview with Hannity, he indicated he was open to allowing them to remain in the country. “No citizenship,” he said. “They’ll pay back taxes. They have to pay back taxes. . . . There’s no amnesty, but we will work with them.” Appearing on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 the following night, Trump said that illegal immigrants would have to leave the country and then come back through a legal channel, a policy known as touchback amnesty. Throughout, he refused to say whether he would deport the 11 million illegal immigrants here right now, and on Sunday, his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said that his position on that is “to be determined.”
Most immigration hawks have been understanding as Trump has tried to right the ship. Stein, for example, argues that Trump’s willingness to engage with the media is being used against him. “Sometimes, when you think out loud, you can get yourself in a snare,” he says.
#related#Others, however, are beginning to lose patience with the candidate’s inability to drill down on an issue so critical to his early success. Krikorian was going to vote for Trump in November. After the candidate’s utterances last week, he says, he’s not so sure. “He’s wandering around aimlessly, and he has been for a week on immigration,” he says. “You can get away with frivolity on issues that are not central to your campaign. But when you say something frivolous and unconsidered and stupid on immigration when you’re ‘Mr. Immigration,’ that’s going to be a problem. So if you haven’t figured out a year after running what your policy is on a key issue, that’s a sign of a real problem in the campaign and in the candidate.”
For now, he is the lone potential defector. As the storm continues to rage — and as Trump prepares to give a speech on the subject that lays out his views once and for all — the broader group of immigration hawks might be less enthusiastic about his candidacy, but they remain confident that eventually he’ll land in the right place.
“I continue to have some hope because of the people he’s surrounded himself with,” says Beck. “As long as they are in the mix, I have hope for a decent position.”