Maybe Donald Trump has changed his position on immigration, and maybe he hasn’t. But it’s hard to get any sort of clarity from the candidate or his campaign on what policy he really supports.
As my colleague Priscilla Alvarez reported on Wednesday, the Republican nominee has made several comments in recent days that suggested he might be softening up his views, veering away from the hardline stance in which the only suitable solution to illegal immigration was a massive deportation of some 12 million people. Trump only deepened the mystery later that day. As Benjy Sarlin wrote of a town-hall meeting taped Tuesday in Austin, Texas, “He sounded unsure of his own immigration position on Tuesday, at one point turning to the audience to survey them on the issue.”
“There certainly could be a softening,” Trump said Tuesday. “What people don’t realize—we have very, very strong laws, but they don’t follow ’em.” In practice, Trump seemed to be floating the idea of amnesty for illegal immigrants in the country, even while insisting that he did not mean amnesty:
No citizenship. Let me go a step further—they’ll pay back-taxes, they have to pay taxes, there's no amnesty, as such, there's no amnesty, but we work with them. When I look at the rooms and I have this all over, now everybody agrees we get the bad ones out, but 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 that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it's so tough, Mr. Trump.”
The idea that immigrants who have been in the United States for a long time and have family in the country ought to have some way to stay sounds a lot like Republican plans for immigration reform after the 2012 election, which called for giving some people “legal status” that fell short of citizenship. Proposing amnesty, while denying it's amnesty, is a time-honored bipartisan tradition. Trump won the GOP primary in large part by bashing his opponents as being too soft on immigration. (Oliver Darcy rounds up a few tweets where Trump assailed more or less the policy he seems to be discussing here.)
But maybe Trump isn’t sure. Several times during a portion of the town hall that aired Wednesday, Trump turned to the audience and asked for their position.
“Look, this is like a poll, there's thousands of people in this room. Who wants those people thrown out?" he asked one point, then asked, “Who does not want them thrown out?” Many members of the audience cheered the idea of “working with” those in the country illegally. If Trump was seeking validation for a pivot, he may have found it.
It’s effectively impossible to tell what Trump’s position is at the moment. And his aides are no more helpful. Take this mind-bending, post-modern explanation from Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson on television Thursday: “He hasn’t changed his position on immigration. He’s changed the words that he is saying.”
The mysterious distinction she draws aside, that isn’t true. For example, on Christmas Eve, Trump was tweeting about the need for massive deportation raids:
Wow, because of the pressure put on by me, ICE TO LAUNCH LARGE SCALE DEPORTATION RAIDS. It's about time!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2015
He specifically praised Dwight Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” in January. On Monday, he demurred, telling Bill O’Reilly “I don't agree with that. I'm not talking about detention centers.”
Trump’s equivocation has already earned him a reprimand from Ann Coulter, who—while promoting a book called In Trump We Trust—took time to accuse Trump of backing amnesty. Establishment conservatives who accused Trump of being either disingenuous on immigration or simply not understanding the situation are feeling vindicated.
Whether Trump’s vacillation will hurt him electorally is unclear. He has muddied the waters on plenty of other issues, and it’s not as though hardline immigration supporters have anywhere else to go in this election; the most likely scenario is that they’d stay home. But as the cheering crowds in Austin showed, there are many Trump supporters who want a stronger posture on border security, but aren’t actually all that insistent on deportations.
Trump, for his part, insists he has not flip-flopped, and at this point, there’s no way to know. By couching his hesitations as questions, he leaves himself room to swing back toward the hardline, or else to continue executing a slow-speed evolution toward some sort of legal status. For the time being, Trump is Schrodinger’s candidate, both the hardest-line Republican nominee on immigration in history and simultaneously a compassionate advocate for amnesty.