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9 days, 11 positions: Donald Trump’s spectacular immigration flameout

What Donald Trump’s immigration policy could actually look like. (There are options.)

President Donald Trump says that he no longer wants a “deal” on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is scheduled to give a major speech on immigration Wednesday in Arizona, finally attempting to settle what has become a surprisingly difficult question: What would President Donald Trump do on immigration?

For the first 14 months of his presidential bid, it was fairly straightforward: Build a wall, make Mexico pay for it, deport unauthorized immigrants, and restrict legal immigration in the name of national security.

These days? LOL, nope.

Lately, Trump and his team have been all over the map on immigration, and Trump’s speech may clarify where he actually landed.

But looking at the collection of what Trump and his surrogates have said over the past two weeks, here are some possible answers to that question. Some are more likely than others. All are theoretically possible.

Would Trump legalize any unauthorized immigrants? (Spoiler: Probably not.)

  • Unlikely: He’d push for and sign a law allowing unauthorized immigrants who’d been in the US a long time to apply for legal status, as long as they paid back taxes.
  • Less unlikely: He’d push for and sign a law allowing unauthorized immigrants to apply for legal status from their home countries (something that isn’t an option for most of them under current law) so they’d have to leave the US first to apply to become citizens.
  • Likely: He wouldn’t change any of the laws dealing with unauthorized immigrants until the border has been secured.

How many unauthorized immigrants would get deported under Trump?

  • Extremely unlikely: Trump wouldn’t do anything to unauthorized immigrants currently in the US at all; he’d just focus on "securing the border."
  • Somewhat unlikely: He’d keep the Obama administration’s deportation policy in place: focusing on immigrants who’ve committed crimes. (He’d just do it with "a lot more energy.")
  • Likely: He’d step up deportations of all unauthorized immigrants. Criminals would definitely be deported, but "there’s a very good chance" any given unauthorized immigrant without a criminal record could be deported, too. This is similar to Obama’s policy in 2009.
  • Somewhat likely: He’d triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, allowing the government to deport (in theory) as many as 1.2 million unauthorized immigrants a year. It’s worth noting that this policy would be a lot more expensive than what we currently spend on deportations.
  • Unlikely: He’d deport all unauthorized immigrants within the United States in the first two years of his presidency — a near logistical impossibility.

What about that border?

  • Possible: There will be a wall, but it will be a "virtual wall" — using surveillance technology to detect and apprehend people crossing the border.
  • Also possible: There will be "a real wall, and tall" — but it’ll only go across certain segments of the border, where the terrain isn’t enough of a natural barrier.
  • Also very possible: There will be a real wall, a tall wall, and it’ll go 100 percent of the way across.
If it’s a virtual wall, this man will be super disappointed (and I’m going to have to find another photo to illustrate stories with).
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Immigration was Trump’s signature issue, and he’s ruined his cred on it

Immigration is the issue that made Trump great again.

It defined his campaign from the beginning: If you knew one thing about Donald Trump’s ideas for America, it’s that he wanted to crack down on unauthorized immigrants and build a wall.

He had genuine rapport with a segment of the Republican base (mostly represented by his adviser Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions) and a segment of previously disaffected voters. It was the issue that gave him a clear contrast with both his opponents in the Republican primary and with Hillary Clinton in the general election.

It gave him a theory of victory — albeit a tenuous one — in November: Voters who felt downwardly mobile and anxious about the future of their country would come out of the woodwork to support a candidate who was strong about protecting them from foreign threats.

And in case of defeat, it gave him a possible second act: serving as a movement leader, continuing to collect attention through rallies and TV appearances.

Now, in late August, racked by self-doubt and riven by internal campaign divisions over his low polling numbers, he’s made a mess of the whole damn thing.

Trump’s advisers are pulling him in two different directions — and he agrees with whomever he’s talking to at the time

During the high point of Trump’s public agonizing over his immigration policy, he literally polled the audience at a Texas town hall hosted by Sean Hannity on Fox News — to see how they felt about deporting people who had been in the US a long time and hadn’t committed crimes.

Trump’s vibe for the past two weeks has been of someone who has just started thinking seriously about immigration and is beginning to wrestle with the tension between "enforcing the law" and keeping families in communities where they’ve put down roots.

It seems impossible. He’s been talking about the issue nonstop for 14 months. Longer, even. He met with a group of unauthorized immigrants in 2013 and told them, "You’ve convinced me" that young immigrants who grew up in the US should get citizenship.

But that’s the key: Trump, as even people inside his campaign acknowledge, has a disconcerting tendency to agree with whomever he’s speaking to or last spoke to. And there are currently two camps inside the Trump campaign.

One side wants him to back off the more inhumane-sounding proposals (like rounding up immigrants via a "deportation force") in order to appeal to suburban whites. The other side wants him to stand his ground and maintain his relationship with his loyal, highly motivated, and highly anti-immigration base.

As Robert Costa reported for the Washington Post about this internal division in the Trump campaign, "Trump tends to echo the words of whomever last spoke to him, making direct access to him even more valuable, the people said, requesting anonymity to talk about internal campaign discussions."

That might mean we’ll never really know what Trump is thinking about immigration — or anything else. It should be treated as a terrifying trait in a possible future president. The answer to "What’s President Donald Trump doing on immigration?" — a question on which the lives of millions of people hang — might depend on his schedule for the day.


The racist history of U.S. immigration policy

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