Trump at immigration crossroads

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Donald Trump faces a tough decision with his immigration speech on Wednesday.

The GOP nominee is behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in polls and needs to claw back moderate Republican and independent voters who are threatening to either back one of Trump’s opponents or sit out the presidential contest entirely.

{mosads}Trump also needs to win over Latino voters who have been cool to the hard-line immigration approach he trumpeted during his march through the Republican primary field.

At the same time, Trump can’t afford to lose his own base, which sees immigration as their candidate’s calling card.

During the GOP primary, Trump’s perceived truth-telling on immigration helped him batter former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) with grassroots Republicans. While Trump’s core supporters are unlikely to abandon him at this stage, there have been warnings that a betrayal on immigration would be a game-changer.

“I think this is a mistake,” conservative pundit Ann Coulter, who just released a book supporting Trump, said last week on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”

“This could be the shortest book tour ever if he’s really softening his position on immigration.”

Trump didn’t appear in public on Monday, suggesting he and his team are working on the Wednesday speech that could be a pivotal point on the road to November.

While he’s been telegraphing a potential shift for more than a week, Trump’s public comments on immigration have muddied the waters.

In two recent interviews, Trump used both the words “softening” and “hardening” to describe his immigration evolution.

“There could certainly be a softening because we’re not looking to hurt people,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall on Wednesday night.

“I don’t think it’s a softening. I’ve had people say it’s a hardening, actually,” he told CNN two days later.

Further complicating the picture, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and vice presidential nominee Mike Pence have said that Trump is not changing his position on immigration.

Most observers expect that Trump will not announce any major policy changes on Wednesday. Instead, they think he’ll use rhetoric to try to appeal to both his base and the new audiences he needs to bring under his tent.

A perceived shift on the issue could undercut Trump’s declaration that he’s different from typical politicians whose positions shift in the wind and potentially disappoint his biggest fans. 

“His base will not allow him to move from his previous position. His previous position was the one he staked out that distinguished himself from every Republican running,” former Ted Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“What he wants to do, of course, is expand his base and get beyond his base, but his base wont let him. He’s got a low ceiling and a high floor, and it’s not going to let him move much.”

Trump is giving the speech in Arizona, a reliably Republican state in presidential elections that polls suggest could be a toss-up in this year’s fight. It’s also the home to vocal Trump supporter Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an immigration hardliner.

Alfonso Aguilar, a former George W. Bush administration official who is now the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said one specific immigration policy area where Trump could shift is with his stance on the “touch back.”

This is an immigration policy where those in America illegally would leave the country before returning and squaring up with the government in exchange for legal status.

Aguilar noted that within the early weeks of Trump’s campaign, he told CNN that he would allow “good” undocumented immigrants back into the country with an “expedited” path to legal status — the “touch back” without the label.

“From the very beginning, he said the good people would return, he was open to the idea of people without a criminal record living in the United States,” Aguilar said.

“He could explain it as an adjustment of what he’s proposed, not a change. It’s not a flip flop … it all depends on how he explains it.”

Conway, however, has already sworn off a touch back, so it’s unclear whether that policy is still on the table.

Carl Paladino, Trump’s New York campaign co-chair, told The Hill that making clear his policy on the touch back will help protect him from attempts by the media to take his words out of context.

“His real goal is to straighten out the press, because the press has been interpreting his immigration policy, which is fairly clear, in many different ways, and I think that’s unfair,” he said.

“What he wants to do is clean it up and make sure he has crossed his t’s and dotted his i’s so he’s not taken out of context or his words are misused.”

Aguilar and Paladino both believe the speech could resonate with Hispanic voters.

The former believes that while Trump’s language has been bombastic, emphasizing the touch back could help him improve with those voters. He added that Trump sits just a few percentage points behind Mitt Romney’s 27 percent share of this Hispanic electorate with “no outreach” to the community.

Aguilar also thinks that Trump can “turn the tables” on Clinton by playing up her past support of a border fence and controversial 2013 comments about sending child migrants back.

Paladino doesn’t believe polls showing Trump winning a small fraction of the Hispanic vote, and he believes that a tough stance on the border can only help Trump with Hispanic voters. He noted that a sizable portion have had experience immigrating legally, either themselves or through family members.

“It’s hard for me to believe that just because they are of Hispanic heritage that they would feel that it’s alright for illegal immigrants to pour across our border,” he said.

But even if the Trump campaign emphasizes a touch back, it’s unclear whether Hispanic voters, or moderates who would appreciate a tack to the center, would be swayed.

“If you are a moderate Republican or an independent voter, how is it possible you take him seriously if he tries to moderate when literally the first words out of his mouth were strident statements about illegal immigrants in this country?” said GOP strategist Reed Galen.

“If there’s been a constant in his campaign, immigration has been it. So to change on it, no one who he needs to vote for him will believe it.” 

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Illegal immigration Immigration Marco Rubio Mike Pence Ted Cruz

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