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Immigration Wonks Struggle to Decipher Trump's New Position

Trump's recent statements about the key issue of his campaign — immigration — had some scratching their heads about where the candidate now stands.
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Manchester, N.H., Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016.Gerald Herbert / AP

There’s a popular new game among veterans of the immigration debate this week. All you have to do to win is figure out Donald Trump’s plan for undocumented immigrants.

No one has won yet.

It’s not for lack of trying: Reporters, activists, and politicians from across the ideological spectrum have pored over Trump’s recent comments like Talmudic scholars, looking for a magic word that might explain what he would do with the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Until recently it was assumed his position was the same as it was throughout the primaries: Deport them all, no exceptions. Last weekend, though, his campaign signaled a new "to be determined" position that may or may not let some remain. Since then, Trump has struggled to articulate what that position is, leaving immigration observers scrambling for clues on one of his top issues.

"Right now, clarity seems to be an impossible hurdle for Donald Trump," Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-reform National Immigration Forum Action Fund, said.

During prior immigration debates, politicians chose their language with extreme precision because the slightest shift in language might signal a new stance.

This time, though, immigration wonks are confronted with a candidate who seems to have little familiarity with existing policy and is willing to negotiate his own position aloud in real time.

On Tuesday, Trump at a Fox News town hall floated at a possible solution in which undocumented immigrants without a criminal record might pay "back taxes" and go through a "process" rather than being rounded up and deported, although they would receive "no citizenship." He even stopped to poll the audience whether those immigrants should stay, with inconclusive results.

That sounded an awful lot like prior Republican compromises on immigration, including one high-profile effort from Jeb Bush. But it was also far short of anything resembling a clear policy.

"We had to focus on a particular phrase because, you know, he is running for president," Noorani said. "And, I have been led to believe people who run for president measure their words carefully. But in the full context of what he says, it is really hard to tell what is serious policy and what is a sales pitch."

Sure enough, on Thursday, Trump issued another round of confusing statements to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

"No legalization," Trump said. But he also seemed to open the door to a possible route forward if they left the country first.

"If somebody wants to go legalization route, what they'll do is they'll go, leave the country, hopefully come back in and then we can talk," Trump added.

That sounded like, as Trump put it in the same interview, a "hardening" of his position. But a number of wonks across the spectrum also suggested that Trump, given his new discomfort with deporting longtime residents, might be referring to prior immigration reform proposals that contained a "touchback" provision.

Under these plans, undocumented immigrants would briefly leave the country as a symbolic gesture, and then return on a path to legal status.

Politico’s Seung Min Kim noted that Trump’s running mate Mike Pence proposed just such a plan in 2006. But then, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had told CNN "no touchback" the other night when asked about the idea.

"Head. Hurts," Kim tweeted.

"No idea what this means," Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist active in immigration politics, responded.

"Your error was in assuming this campaign acknowledged the accepted meaning of words," added Dara Lind, a former policy aide at America’s Voice and current immigration reporter at Vox.

Adding to the confusion, Trump also told Cooper that he would "go with the laws that are existing," which prompted the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent to speculate Trump would prioritize deporting criminals ("the bad ones," as Trump calls them) but offer no relief to anyone else.

But that analysis rested on the unproven assumption Trump realized immigrants who entered the country illegally are barred for years from applying for a visa under current law, sometimes permanently. Maybe he would take executive action to allow them to stay instead? Could he do that after demanding President Obama lift his own executive orders shielding undocumented immigrants from deportation?

The view was just as muddy for immigration hardliners supportive of Trump’s prior calls to deport undocumented immigrants without exception.

"I would love to hear verification on his immigration policy," Congressman Steve King of Iowa told MSNBC on Friday. "He said there was 'softening' and now some say that it's a 'hardening.'"

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration, offered a digital shrug on Friday as he watched fellow conservatives debate the "touchback" theory.

"He's had more than a year to decide what he thinks about his signature issue," Krikorian tweeted.

Ann Coulter, who is promoting a new book called "In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome," accused Trump of allowing pro-reform allies to push him in their direction.

"Whoever gave Trump the legerdemain about 'back taxes' and 'no citizenship' needs to go back to the Rubio campaign," Coulter tweeted on Friday.

Sarah Palin, another Trump supporter, told the Wall Street Journal that Trump would face "massive disappointment" from his fans if went "wishy-washy" on immigration.

There may not be a way for Trump to clarify his position to everyone’s satisfaction. Noorani, with the National Immigration Forum, suggested a written statement.

But Trump already issued one immigration white paper last year that left things vague on deportations and one that he has contradicted repeatedly. Trump recently abandoned a detailed tax plan he released during the primaries as well in favor of a new proposal.

While some pro-reform Republicans have mockingly invited Trump into their fold this week, Bush has learned better than to make any bold pronouncements after spending an entire campaign debating against Trump.

"I can only say that whatever his views are this morning, they might change this afternoon, and they were different than they were last night, and they'll be different tomorrow," he said in an interview on WABC.