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Trump Rally Attendees Shrug Off 'Softening' on Immigration -- So Far

At least so far, the voters attending his rallies don't seem bothered.
Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a campaign speech in Charlotte, N.C. Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016.Gerald Herbert / AP

JACKSON, MS -- Donald Trump seemed to back away this week from a cornerstone of his campaign: His hardline stance on illegal immigration, including his support for mass deportations and opposition to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

The move stunned pundits and even prompted criticism from some outspoken pro-Trump commentators, including conservative author Ann Coulter. After all, Trump's vigorous opposition to illegal immigration helped separate him from the GOP primary pack and catapult him to prominence in the race.

But, at least so far, the voters attending his rallies don't seem bothered.

"That's how he negotiates things," said Barry Meadd, a Tampa Bay builder who attended Trump's rally there Wednesday. Meadd said the shift simply reflected the negotiation strategy Trump lays out in his book, "The Art of the Deal."

"You always, in the process of dealing with anything you start out high and you come back to what you were gonna start with, in the middle. Everybody thinks they get a good deal -- and he gets what he wants."

Meadd said that, as the owner of a small construction firm, his business had suffered because of low-wage undocumented workers. But he accepted Trump's softer stance on deportations because, "to me, that's just being reasonable."

Meadd's comments were characteristic of the sentiment expressed by Trump supporters at his rallies across the nation this week.

Their blasé attitude suggests Trump could maintain his base of support even as he softens his stance on immigration and other key issues in a bid to broaden his support for the general election.

Some Trump fans saw the candidate's move away from mass deportations as an expected and even necessary shift.

"I think it's necessary for him to give up those positions," said Elizabeth Huckabee, a nurse from Tupelo who attended Trump's Jackson rally. "He has made a lot of people mad."

Trump's comments on Mexican immigrants being "rapists and murderers" were some of his most incendiary, and set the tone for a campaign that's seen the candidate offend a different minority or religious group nearly every month. So it's no surprise that, as Trump looks to revamp his image for the general and make up for lost ground against Democrat Hillary Clinton in August, he's softening his stance on immigration and offering a more sympathetic tone on the issue.

And anti-illegal immigration advocates say the shift away from mass deportations actually brings him closer to orthodoxy on the issue. Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for a reduction in immigration levels, said most groups like his oppose mass deportation because it's impractical and costly.

"So to the extent that he is sending that signal...he's putting himself in line with most of the pro-enforcement community," he said.

But not all were willing to overlook the shift. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, an immigration hardliner who's advised Trump on the issue, seemed puzzled by it. "Did he say soften?" he asked reporters, unable to respond when asked how he felt about Trump's appearance on Fox. Coulter called Trump's softening on immigration a "mistake."

And Beck warned, before Trump's town hall with Hannity aired, that allowing law-abiding undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. -- exactly the policy Trump seemed to float during the town hall -- "then I think he would lose a ton of support."

"I think an awful lot of his base of support is based on, he was actually going to do something," Beck said.

It's too early to tell if Trump's shift will do any lasting damage to his support, or even if he'll codify his new rhetoric into policy. He left enough wiggle room during his interviews to change course yet again, and on Wednesday night was back to attacking the media for "pushing amnesty."

But if Trump ends up entirely abandoning conservatives on immigration, he'll have one constant to fall back on to give him an advantage: He's not Hillary Clinton.

"Trump is not trustworthy on immigration—Hillary is," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports immigration restrictions. "Hillary can be trusted to be the worst president on immigration in history."

Even those Trump supporters who are concerned about his comments say they're more worried about Clinton.

Tye Stout, an IT manager at Trump's rally in Austin, said he was opposed to allowing any undocumented immigrants to become permanent residents, and seemed uncomfortable with Trump's apparent immigration shifts.

"Hopefully he's still gonna consider securing the border," he said, seeming to acknowledge Trump's most recent comments may even throw Trump's border wall into doubt.

But even if Trump does abandon his original policy, "I just wouldn't consider voting for Hillary ever," Stout said. He also felt that the libertarian and green tickets aren't viable.

"And I will vote," he added, "so there's only one option."