Immigration is Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s signature issue. And yet, as we near the presidential election in November, there’s a surprising amount of confusion about what immigration policies a President Trump would actually pursue.
This is partly Trump’s own doing. He’s not the clearest speaker on his best days, and he has a well-documented habit of agreeing with whomever he’s just spoken to. But while Trump’s campaign has struggled to keep him on message, they’ve also helped sow confusion themselves — with the help of easily confused political reporters — to make Trump’s immigration plan seem a lot more flexible and moderate than it actually is.
If you step back from what any Trump staffer is saying on TV on any given day, a much clearer picture emerges. Here’s the agenda, as the Trump campaign’s laid it out, that a Trump administration would pursue on immigration.
- The Trump administration would attempt to prevent anyone from crossing the border illegally at all, whether the border wall is real or virtual.
- The Trump administration would deport more people. He’d triple the US’s existing “deportation force,” which could hypothetically give the government capacity to deport up to 1.2 million people a year.
- The Trump administration would put any unauthorized immigrant in the US at risk of deportation. He’s delineated particular priorities for who his agents would try to target first (although those “priorities” cover as many as 6 million of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living here). But whether or not they are explicit priorities, unauthorized immigrants in the US would be at risk of deportation at any time.
- The Trump administration would make it harder for unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the US, encouraging “self-deportation.” Trump would push Congress to pass a bill requiring all employers in the US to check the legal status of their employees electronically — which would (in theory) dump 8 million unauthorized workers out of jobs and deprive their families of their income.
- The Trump administration would make it harder for immigrants to come to the US legally. The administration (again, with Congress’ help) would make it harder for American companies to get visas for immigrant workers. Individual immigrants would have to undergo an “extreme vetting” process — something Trump could do, at least in part, with or without Congress’ help.
- Unauthorized immigrants who left the US would have to wait three or 10 years (or be barred permanently) from applying to reenter legally. Even after that waiting period, they’d be competing with everyone else for fewer slots than are available for immigrants today. And people who’d lived in the US before without papers would be particularly likely to flunk an “extreme vetting” process, because they’d be particularly likely to stay in the US even after their visas expired.
It’s an ambitious agenda — but it still might not be enough. Trump’s ultimate goal is to make (white) Americans feel safe from unauthorized immigration. That might be beyond any president’s power to do.