The Republican presidential nominee firmly shot down speculation on Wednesday that he may be open to legal status for undocumented immigrants, vowing that “no one will be immune or exempt from enforcement.”
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump said during what he billed as a major policy speech in Phoenix. “That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don’t have a country.”
Trump, who has made immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, has been under increasing pressure to explain what he thinks should be done about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., particularly those who aren’t criminals or security threats. His remarks over the past two weeks have seemed contradictory ― is he “softening” on deportations, as he said last Tuesday? Or is he “hardening,” as he said two days later?
He made clear on Wednesday that he wasn’t much concerned with how his policies would affect those undocumented immigrants.
“The truth is, the central issue is not the needs of the 11 million illegal immigrants, or however many it may be,” he said. He said they would be unable to gain legal status in the U.S. without returning to their native countries first. There would be “no amnesty,” he said.
That’s because undocumented immigrants ― and refugees, and legal immigrants ― are above all else a threat, according to Trump. He said so when he started his campaign, repeated it frequently, and made it the core theme of Wednesday’s speech, which at the end introduced people whose family members were killed by undocumented immigrants. Trump warned of terrorists sneaking in with refugees, immigrants receiving welfare, and American workers ― especially black and Latino ones ― losing their jobs.
“There is only one core issue in the immigration debate and that issue is the well-being of the American people,” Trump said.
Trump’s speech showed again that he prefers talking enforcement over what to do about undocumented immigrants who likely wouldn’t be deported and would remain in the U.S. It’s easy for him to say that all undocumented immigrants will leave the country through a “deportation force.” But actually removing every undocumented immigrant isn’t realistic, to say nothing of whether it would be humane or sound policy.
One Trump campaign aide argued recently that the “mass deportation” that people may have envisioned after hearing Trump’s rhetoric ― agents going door-to-door or conducting raids ― was a media invention never on the table in the first place. That might be true, or it may be that Trump hadn’t thought it through, the media filled in the blanks and he let people interpret it as they wished.
Trump’s speech failed to resolve that deportation confusion. He promised that “in several years, when we have accomplished all of enforcement and deportation goals and truly ended illegal immigration for good, including the construction of a great wall,” there might be something done with the undocumented immigrants still here.
“Then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those individuals that remain,” he said.
But that would be only after doing everything possible to drive them out of the U.S., according to other parts of his speech.
What Trump laid out Wednesday was an approach to undocumented immigrants that falls within current law, but with broader and more aggressive enforcement. He again promised to deport criminals and national security threats ― as the Obama administration is doing ― but he also said he would eliminate Obama policies that lead to fewer non-criminal undocumented immigrants being deported.
Trump said he would create a “deportation task force” within Immigration and Customs Enforcement focused on finding and removing criminals. He said he would end “sanctuary cities” by using federal funding to force them to cooperate fully with immigration enforcement. Any undocumented immigrant who was arrested would go into deportation proceedings, regardless of whether they are convicted, he said. The government would better track people entering and exiting the country legally, and better stop businesses from hiring undocumented workers, Trump said.
Trump said he would triple the number of ICE agents and add 5,000 new border patrol officers, joking that “maybe they’ll be able to deport” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. He said there would be mandatory detention for anyone apprehended at the border, and tougher action on countries that refuse to take back their citizens.
Also promised on the border: an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall,” bolstered by technology and paid for by Mexico.
He talked about the wall hours after meeting with with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City. Trump said in a joint press conference afterward the meeting that the two men hadn’t discussed payment for the wall. Peña Nieto later said he told Trump that Mexico refuses pay.
Trump apparently wasn’t convinced.
“Mexico will pay for the wall,” he said during his speech. “100 percent. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for the wall.”
He offered a symbol of friendship with Mexico in the form of new hats for his surrogates, in the style of his “Make America Great Again” headwear. The new slogan: “Make Mexico Great Again Also,” showed off by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Trump also said he would make legally coming into the U.S. more difficult, to make sure the country was accepting only those “that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.”
He repeated his vow for “extreme vetting” and for banning people from certain countries ― no longer the Muslim “ban” he once promised, but one with a fairly obvious aim of keeping out Muslims. If people don’t like it, too bad.
“We’ve got to have a country, folks,” he said.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified Sessions’ state. He represents Alabama.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.