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Donald Trump has pushed mass deportation into the GOP mainstream

Al Drago/CQ Roll Call Group/Getty

Republicans went into the 2016 election facing a prisoner's dilemma on immigration policy. Collectively, the party's leading figures wanted to avoid endorsing immigration policies that were so hard-line they would alienate voters (especially Latinos), but any individual politician could get a short-term boost by embracing hard-line policies, putting pressure on the others to follow suit.

That politician was Donald Trump. The policy was mass deportation. And the strategy totally worked — and might have an effect on the GOP that outlasts Trump himself.

For proof, just check out Ted Cruz's Monday night appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. Cruz — who has definitely positioned himself as an immigration restrictionist but until now has avoided an explicit promise to deport millions of people — gave in.

O'REILLY: Twelve million illegal aliens here in America. Mr. Trump says he would deport them forcefully. The federal authorities will round them up and send them back home. Goes bass home. It will cause a lot of money, but he says it is worth it, because we just cannot allow the law to be broken this way. Would you round up 12 million illegal aliens here and if so, how?

CRUZ: Listen. We should enforce the law. How do we enforce the law. Yes, we should deport them. We should build the wall. We should triple the border patrol and Federal Law requires that anyone here illegally that is apprehended should be deported. It is the greatest difference, Bill.

O'REILLY: Mr. Trump would look for them to get them out. Would you do that if you everywhere President?

CRUZ: Look. Bill, of course you would. That is what ICE exists for. We have law enforcement that looks for people, who are violating the law that apprehends them and deports them.

Ted Cruz has tried to resist going this far but got sucked into the black hole of Trump

Ted Cruz has a reputation as a "conservative's conservative." He's the candidate of primary voters who call themselves "very conservative" in exit polls. He's simultaneously more consistently conservative than Donald Trump, and the candidate who's been most willing to embrace Trump's effect on the Republican Party (at least until Trump started going after Cruz's Canadian birth).

But Ted Cruz is also a smart man and a relatively careful politician. So as much as he ran to the right of the rest of the field on, say, immigration — joining Trump in attacking Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush for their past support of comprehensive immigration reform — he conspicuously avoided saying that he'd deport all the unauthorized immigrants currently in the US.

Last year, Cruz released an 11-page platform on immigration. At the time, I described it as "tough on legal immigrants [and] tougher on unauthorized ones." But unlike Trump's platform on the issue, it didn't say that all unauthorized immigrants currently in the US would be deported. If Trump's plan would be labeled "mass deportation," Cruz's, like Mitt Romney's 2012 strategy, would be something more like "self-deportation."

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that mass deportation is an unpopular position among a lot of Americans, including a lot of Republicans: Even after several months of Trump, exit polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina showed that majorities of Republican voters supported granting some sort of legal status to unauthorized immigrants.

The other is that mass deportation is a tremendously impractical policy proposal — it would cost billions of dollars, take years, and cause tremendous legal headaches. Woe betide the Republican who gets elected on the promise to kick out millions of unauthorized immigrants and then finds himself unable to do so.

But these are concerns for professional politicians — people who are concerned about appealing to specific Republican constituencies or elites, or people who are concerned about their ability to keep the promises they ride into office.

Trump has no such concerns. In this respect, his main selling proposition is correct: He'll say things other candidates aren't willing to say, because he doesn't have the concerns they have about getting held accountable for them later.

Trump has brought mass deportation into the Overton window

To listen to Donald Trump tell it, no one was talking about immigration in the Republican Party until he announced his candidacy. That's obviously wrong. But Trump really has changed the conversation around immigration — the Washington Post's Greg Sargent called him a "black hole" — in a way it won't necessarily be easy to turn back.

A post I wrote in January 2015 basically described the state of Republican Party debate on the issue:

Collectively, Republican presidential candidates have an incentive to avoid the issue. They can't go an entire year without mentioning immigration at all, but they can stick to tough-sounding rhetoric, and controversies [...]— and avoid making any concrete statements about policy.

That's not true anymore. Now a leading conservative journalist and pundit is making damned sure that a leading Republican politician has an explicit position on mass deportation.

Political scientists talk about the Overton window: the range of positions on an issue that are considered acceptable or possible. Mass deportation wasn't in the Overton window a year ago. It is now.

This doesn't matter much to the 2016 race: Donald Trump is much more likely to win the nomination than Ted Cruz. But it matters if Trump loses the presidency after winning the nomination, and the Republican Party has to figure out how to pick up the pieces.

A month ago, when it looked like the Republican establishment would be forced to choose between Trump and Cruz, many of them said they'd prefer Trump. The reason: A Cruz candidacy could change the party, while a Trump candidacy wouldn't.

As Jonathan Martin of the New York Times put it:

few among the Republican professional class believe [Trump] would win a general election. In their minds, it would be better to effectively rent the party to Mr. Trump for four months this fall, through the general election, than risk turning it over to Mr. Cruz for at least four years, as either the president or the next-in-line leader for the 2020 nomination.

On immigration, however, that might not be true. As I wrote in January 2015, activists on both sides of the immigration issue have a tendency to hold politicians to their past statements. Immigrant rights activists don't tend to forgive; pro-enforcement activists don't tend to forget. And now that the Bills O'Reillys of the world are attuned to asking pointed follow-up questions about how many people, exactly, Republican politicians plan to deport, it's entirely plausible that Trump's immigration position will be something Republicans of the future are asked about, even if Trump himself is gone.