Hard-liners shrug off Trump’s softer tone on immigration

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Immigration hard-liners are embracing Donald Trump’s new message on immigration, saying the softer tone conveys a more practical approach to deportation without subverting his tough positions on enforcement and border security.

“I’m not disappointed,” Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., and a national voice for tough deportation policies, told CNN on Wednesday. “He’s going to … study the law, and he’s going to follow the law and see where that takes us on enforcing the illegal immigration problem that we have.”

{mosads}Trump’s rise in the presidential primaries has been credited in large part to an aggressive immigration platform that included attacks on Mexicans, vows to fortify the southern border wall and promises to deport all of the 11 million people living in the country without documentation — positions that resonated with the white, conservative, working-class men who constitute his base. 

But on Saturday, Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, met for the first time with a group of Hispanic advisers, and his tone since then has been notably milder toward undocumented immigrants. 

“There certainly can be a softening, because we’re not looking to hurt people,” Trump said on Fox News in an interview with Sean Hannity that aired in part on Tuesday.

In the second part of the same interview that aired Wednesday, Trump said his plan doesn’t include citizenship for those already here.  

“Let me go a step further: They’ll pay back taxes; they have to pay taxes. There’s no amnesty, as such. There’s no amnesty, but we work with them,” he said.

The shift has concerned some conservative commentators, who worry he’s walking back earlier promises for political gain. But a number of the leading conservative voices in the immigration debate are taking the adjustment in stride.

“We oppose mass roundups and mass deportations. We think it’s too costly and unnecessary, [and] anything that pulls back from that we’re glad to see,” Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, which advocates for a reduction in immigration, said Tuesday by phone. “It seems like that is the direction that Mr. Trump is going in right now. And if that’s the case, then we applaud it.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hard-liner, echoed that message. King warned that while a shift in position “would be a mistake,” a moderation in tone is “fine.”

“I would expect that softening this tone is something that may be part of this new campaign,” King told CNN Wednesday. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an early Trump supporter and the face of hard-line immigration policy on Capitol Hill, said after Saturday’s Hispanic outreach meeting that Trump is “wrestling” with how to approach the 11 million people living in the country illegally, but he’s in no way backtracked from earlier vows to hold them accountable. 

“First and foremost, he has made clear that we end the illegality,” Sessions told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Other Trump surrogates are floating different ideas as they bounce around the cable channels and try to interpret their standard-bearer’s recent comments. It’s a sport that’s led to some tortured semantic gymnastics on the part of his defenders.

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), one of the earliest Trump backers, is promoting a system that provides legal status and work permits to the millions of people in the country illegally. He’s calling it “rhetorical deportation” — and he suggested Wednesday that Trump might be open to embracing the concept. 

“There is just no logical way to ever deport 12 million people,” Collins said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” program.

“I have since day one called for deportation — I referred to as a rhetorical deportation — [where we] bring people in out of the shadows, go into a room — when they walk into the room they are illegal immigrants — they get work papers, Social Security, we know who they are,” Collins said. “[Then] they walk out another door as legal immigrants with work papers, not citizenship.

“So they have been deported, just not taken back across the border.”

Such an idea would likely shock the many Trump supporters drawn to his earlier vows to adopt a “deportation force” charged with removing millions of undocumented immigrants. And some of those conservative voices piped up this week to denounce Trump’s “softening.”

Ann Coulter, a conservative pundit, said Trump’s shift is “a mistake” likely originated by “consultants” who hope the GOP nominee can make inroads with Hispanic voters.

“I’ve given him constructive criticism when I think he makes a mistake,” she told MSNBC. “I think this is a mistake.”

Democrats and other liberal immigration reformers, meanwhile, say Trump’s incendiary remarks toward Mexicans and other minorities have already put those voters far beyond his reach.

They contend that his new immigration message is designed merely to soften his sharp edges in the eyes of moderate white Republicans and independents, who are turned off by Trump’s more controversial statements but also don’t want to support Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.

“We should see it for what it is: It’s a cynical attempt by a flailing campaign to reach out to suburban Republican voters to try to impress them that they’re not as racist as they’ve been for the past 15 months,” Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice, an advocacy group, said this week. “I don’t think that’s a very attractive strategy, [and] I don’t think it’s going to work. It’s certainly not going to work with Latinos.”

Trump’s shifting immigration remarks illustrate the dilemma facing Republicans in recent national elections. On the one hand, GOP candidates are all but forced to adopt a hard-line position to be successful in the Republican primaries. On the other, they face pressure to shift to the center during the general election to attract the ever-growing Hispanic vote — a move that risks alienating the same base that decides the primary contests.

Beck suggested the current confusion surrounding Trump’s shifting rhetoric is rooted in his search for that balance.

“I can’t answer what’s definitely happening here,” Beck said. “[But] if he were to come out and say, ‘It’s fine for everyone to stay,’ I think his base support would collapse. That would be really harmful to his cause.”

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Illegal immigration Immigration Jeff Sessions
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