Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump talked this week about deporting criminals, securing the border and, perhaps, employing a strategy other than the mass removal of every one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
If that immigration plan sounds familiar, it’s because it is ― pro-reform Republicans have been promising the same for years.
Some of them are watching with mild amusement as Trump adopts their talking points, if not their policies, ahead of election as he attempts to gloss over his past vilification of undocumented immigrants.
“To say you’re for deporting murderers and rapists, well that’s great news ― so is Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, George Bush and Chuck Schumer,” said Rob Jesmer, a Republican strategist who works with the pro-immigration reform group FWD.us.
No one knows, possibly including Trump himself, where exactly he stands on unauthorized immigrants. His campaign has been the worst-case scenario for the Republicans who warned after the 2012 election that their party needed to tone down the anti-immigrant rhetoric and improve its standing in the Latino community to have any chance at survival.
Trump infamously began his run for the White House by promising a wall along the border with Mexico and saying the country was sending murderers and rapists into the United States. He then promised to round up undocumented immigrants and send them all back to their home countries.
It was never a realistic policy offering, but it was one he made repeatedly. He now seems to be backing away from it. On Wednesday, Trump “polled” the audience by applause on whether an undocumented immigrant who had been in the U.S. for years should be allowed to go through some sort of process and stay in the country ― the broad strokes of immigration reform he criticized opponents including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for supporting.
But there’s a very important caveat: Trump hasn’t endorsed the type of immigration reform Bush or Rubio floated. Both of them had detailed policy proposals for undocumented immigrants; he does not. For all of the fanfare about his remarks, Trump hasn’t yet said whether he would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status.
Trump’s team insists he isn’t changing his positions. When a campaign aide described Trump’s current immigration endorsement plans, it sounded more like an acknowledgement that it’s impossible to deport 11 million people than an endorsement of legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday that there is “not a path to legalization unless people leave the country if they come back in, and then they have to start paying taxes. But there is no path to legalization unless they leave the country and come back.”
Still, even a rhetorical shift is a relief for Republicans who’ve been calling for a better tone on immigration for years.
“There’s a small bit of vindication that in a last-ditch effort Trump is adopting the same talking points that some Republicans had used a year and a half ago to try to find a sensible pathway forward on this issue,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who worked as an adviser to Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and for 2012 nominee Mitt Romney.
All of this has produced a fair amount of trolling, including from former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who was ousted by a primary opponent who accused him of supporting “amnesty.”
Becky Tallent, who worked on immigration reform for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), noted the similarities to the way she encouraged politicians to talk about immigration.
Bush weighed in as well, without any amusement, calling Trump’s shifting on the issue “abhorrent.”
The Trump campaign promised details on his immigration plans in the coming days or weeks. Until then, we probably won’t know whether he has a plan to offer more than the status quo or increased enforcement. Like anything with Trump, even after he puts out more detailed plans, they could change.
Outside of the conservative sphere, the immigration reform advocacy community isn’t holding their breath for something they will like.
“He hasn’t really said what he’s for,” Frank Sharry of pro-reform group America’s Voice told reporters on a call about Trump’s latest comments. “It’s a rhetorical float, and given 15 months of overt bigotry and racism towards Latinos and immigrants, color us skeptical that he’s actually going to go forward with a real policy shift.”