The media really loves the idea that Donald Trump is changing his position on immigration. In particular, they really love the theory that Trump secretly has a plan to legalize unauthorized immigrants.
When Trump tells ABC News that some unauthorized immigrants, eventually, possibly "could be" allowed to stay, it’s reported as Trump "refusing to rule out" a legalization program. The press gets excited when Rudy Giuliani (a moderate on immigration who unsuccessfully pushed Trump to adopt his own stance) tells CNN’s Jake Tapper that Trump "would find it very, very difficult to throw out a family that has been here for 15 years," and that his proposals didn’t actually pose a threat to them.
There’s just one problem: There is no secret plan. Period. Donald Trump’s immigration policy has been fairly consistent — and much clearer than the media presumes.
We know exactly what a Trump administration would do, once in office, on immigration. We know because Trump has told us multiple times. It’s on his website. He gave a major speech about it last week. And while some of his closest advisers have worked hard to persuade the press it’s not really as harsh as it seems, everybody in Trump’s inner circle appears to agree on the key points of the candidate’s actual plan.
More unauthorized immigrants would be deported, all unauthorized immigrants would be at risk of deportation, and it would be much harder for any immigrant — legal or otherwise — to enter the US.
That’s it. That’s all.
Political reporters think they’re being skeptical of Trump. But they’re playing into the campaign’s hands.
Reporters who are familiar with immigration policy get it. Benjy Sarlin at NBC News, Elise Foley at the Huffington Post, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, Miriam Jordan at the Wall Street Journal, Sahil Kapur at Bloomberg, Julia Preston at the New York Times — they’ve all written articles that explain the policy thinking behind Trump’s plan, and they’re not getting distracted by every word said by someone with a title on the Trump campaign.
But some political campaign reporters, who hear immigration buzzwords but aren’t necessarily familiar with how they fit together, are convinced that there’s somehow more to the plan. That’s why they seize on every comment made by a Trump surrogate, and every perceived inconsistency between one day and the next.
In general, when it comes to covering Donald Trump, it’s fair to assume that he has no idea what he’s talking about — that his ideas are inconsistent and make no sense. And that’s probably, in part, what’s motivating reporters to focus on apparent inconsistencies on Trump’s signature issue: Even on immigration, the issue that won him the nomination, he doesn’t have a firm stance.
But it’s not actually a sign of a skeptical attitude to think that Donald Trump secretly supports legalization. It’s exactly what Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani want the press to believe.
Trump surrogates understand that the phrase "mass deportation" sounds harsh and could turn off suburban moderate voters. They understand that Americans want the question of illegal immigration to go away, but that faced with the reality of the unauthorized immigrant population — that the majority of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the US for at least 10 years, and live in families with at least one US citizen — they may not be willing to say "get out."
So they’re insisting that what Trump’s proposing isn’t "mass deportation" — which is true if you define "mass deportation" as deporting all 11 million unauthorized immigrants within two years, but certainly isn’t true if you define it as "deporting a lot of people."
Trump’s policy would only work if it drained unauthorized immigrants of any hope of legalization
The misunderstanding at the heart of the issue comes from Trump himself — the insistence that it "could be" that some unauthorized immigrants could eventually get legal status.
But this isn’t necessarily the flip-flop it appears to be, either. Here’s how Trump put it in his speech last week:
In several years, when we have accomplished all of our enforcement and deportation goals and truly ended illegal immigration for good [...] and the establishment of our new lawful immigration system then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those individuals who remain.
That discussion can take place only in an atmosphere in which illegal immigration is a memory of the past, no longer with us, allowing us to weigh the different options available based on the new circumstances at the time.
Right now, however, we’re in the middle of a jobs crisis, a border crisis and a terrorism crisis like never before. All energies of the federal government and the legislative process must now be focused on immigration security. That is the only conversation we should be having at this time, immigration security. Cut it off.
Admittedly, there is disagreement even among those of us in the reporting corps familiar with immigration policy about how exactly to interpret this. Some of my colleagues, including Sarlin and Sargent, insist that Donald Trump would not ever consider granting legal status to any immigrants ever, even if he accomplishes everything that’s now on his immigration agenda.
But I think what Trump is advocating for is closer to something proposed by other hard-liners in immigration policy, like Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.
They’re willing to grant the possibility that maybe, at some point in the distant future, it might make sense to legalize unauthorized immigrants — after the border has been entirely secured and about half of the unauthorized immigrants currently living in the US have left (either by being deported or deporting themselves).
After, as Trump said, unauthorized immigration is "a memory of the past."
The debate about what a President Trump would do once that happened, though? It’s entirely academic. The point is that no matter what President Trump does on immigration, that’s never a standard he’s going to meet.
Trump’s not just demanding that the government implement all his policies before legalization could be placed on the table — he’s demanding that Americans start feeling that immigration is no longer an issue. Given that Americans’ fears about immigration are as much about race (if not more so) as they are about legal status, it doesn’t seem like that anxiety will fully disappear no matter what the government does.
In the meantime, the slim possibility of future legalization is a cruel tease to unauthorized immigrants: tempting them to try to not just endure years of misery but outlast millions of their peers, in the diaphanous hope of some possible reward.
Refusing to "rule out" legalization in the hypothetical future is a political salve. It reassures the political press — and maybe some suburban Republican voters who have been Trump skeptical — that Trump isn’t as hard-line as he sounds. Maybe it even reassures Trump himself, who has openly struggled with the prospect of deporting longtime residents from the US, even as he’s continued to advocate for it as a matter of policy.
But not everyone can afford to be distracted. Moderates and political reporters have the luxury to feel that Donald Trump might not deport the "good people." Immigrants themselves do not.