Lately Donald Trump has been trying to have it both ways on immigration, signaling that he has reconsidered his signature promise to deport 11 million people while denying that his position has changed. Trump's running mate and his campaign manager continued the contradictions in talk show appearances yesterday, seeking simultaneously to reassure conservatives attracted by his hard line on immigration and moderates turned off by it.
"Nothing has changed about Donald Trump's position on dealing with illegal immigration," Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential candidate, implausibly declared on CNN's State of the Union. Pence's assertion was hard to reconcile with the video clip that the show's host, Jake Tapper, had just played. "There certainly can be a softening," Trump said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity last Tuesday, "because we are not looking to hurt people. We want people. We have some great people in this country. We have some great, great people in this country." In another interview with Hannity the next day, Trump elaborated on the reason for that softening:
When I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and I've had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me, and they've said, "Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who's been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it's so tough, Mr. Trump." I have it all the time! It's a very, very hard thing.
During the same interview, Trump suggested he was open to legalizing unauthorized immigrants. Although there would be "no citizenship" and "no amnesty as such," he said, if they "pay back taxes" he would be willing to "work with them."
Yet according to Pence, who said Trump has been "absolutely consistent" on immigration, "there will be no path to legalization, no path to citizenship unless people leave the country." Asked if Trump still plans to create a "deportation force" that will track down everyone living in the country without permission, Pence said "we will have a mechanism" that will be "tough" but "fair." Tapper repeatedly pressed Pence to say whether Trump is still determined to deport all 11 million unapproved immigrants, and Pence repeatedly dodged the question, saying only that "you're going to hear more detail in the next two weeks that lays out all the policies."
Appearing on the CBS show Face the Nation yesterday, Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said the candidate has been "pretty consistent" on immigration, since "there's still no amnesty" and he's still "building that wall" on the Mexican border. As for the 11 million or so unauthorized residents of the United States, "he wants to address that issue humanely and fairly." Conway conceded that "he is not talking about a deportation force" anymore but does insist that "if you want to be here legally, you have to apply to be here legally"—phrasing that is consistent with a path to legalization (just don't call it amnesty!), whether or not it requires leaving the U.S. before applying. Yet Conway later said Trump remains committed to "making sure that there's no legalization."
Trump plans to give an immigration speech on Wednesday, which will give him an opportunity to muddy matters further. His sudden fondness for mealy-mouthed moderation on this subject poses obvious risks for a candidate whose appeal was based largely on his politically incorrect candor and his promise to crack down on illegal immigration. The shift may prove just plausible enough to dampen enthusiasm among his supporters without making him more appealing to the majority that favors some form of legalization.