Tribune Washington Bureau
PHOENIX — Donald Trump backed off his plan to forcibly deport all 11 million people in the U.S. illegally on Wednesday. But his speech outlining his immigration policy was hardly the “softening” he had floated.
In a much-anticipated address, Trump delivered a raft of hard-line proposals, including new limits and entry criteria for legal immigrants, promises to crack down on welfare abusers, proposals to end the automatic renewal of visa programs and a pledge to deny legal status to anyone who remains in the country illegally.
“Our message to the world will be this: You cannot obtain legal status or obtain citizenship in the United States by illegally entering our country,” Trump said to cheers from thousands of supporters here. “People will know that you can’t just smuggle in, hunker down, and wait to be legalized … . Those days are over.”
By cutting off any chance of legal status for those here illegally, Trump would force those not deported under his plan to return home on their own before applying for entry.
Trump’s call to curb legal immigration to match “historical norms” was new for him and striking. Depending on how Trump defines those norms, they could mean a major shift in U.S. policy, sharply reducing net new immigration for years to come.
Trump also said those who would be allowed in would face new criteria “based on merit,” including their ability to be financially self-sufficient. Current policy awards preference to those with family already in the country.
“We take anybody, just come on in,” Trump said. “Not anymore.”
He laid heavy blame on immigrants crossing “open borders” for displacing American workers and threatening their security, using the kind of rhetoric that has pleased his core supporters but risks turning off more moderate Republicans and independents.
The appearance, which included emotional testimonials from people who lost loved ones in violent acts committed by immigrants, whipped the crowd into an unusually animated frenzy, even by the standards of Trump’s rowdy rallies.
Trump, in appealing to his most conservative supporters, tried to move past a week of vacillating on immigration, his signature issue, by asserting that the question of what to do with 11 million people in the U.S illegally is not central to the problem.
“Anyone who tells you that the core issue is the needs of those living here illegally has simply spent too much time in Washington,” Trump said to cheers.
Rather, Trump said that President Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s policies are to blame for “countless American” deaths at the hands of immigrants in the country illegally. He said the main problem with the immigration system is that it serves the needs of wealthy donors, interest groups and politicians. He warned that Clinton was planning to broadly expand her powers if elected, in defiance of the Constitution, to grant increased “executive amnesty.”
Trump, who has gone back and forth on his prior pledge to use a special force to round up the 11 million immigrants in the country without authorization, tried to reframe the debate with a new plan that includes what he termed a deportation task force, but said it would focus on those who have committed crimes, overstayed their visas or abused government benefits. He suggested that as many as 2 million people who have committed criminal acts would be deported quickly after his inauguration.
Other parts of his plan, like adding 5,000 Border Patrol agents, echo legislation that passed the U.S. Senate in 2013 that would have added 20,000 border agents — four times as many as Trump suggests. Trump was highly critical of that proposal during the Republican primary, singling out Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for his role in drafting it. The bill eventually died in Congress.
Other plans include his long-promised border wall. He did not specify whether it would be entirely a physical structure, which would likely be impractical and prohibitively expensive in many areas marked by natural geographic features. He also reiterated his promise that Mexico would pay for the wall, something Mexican officials including President Enrique Pena Nieto have called a nonstarter. Trump did not offer alternative plans to pay for it.
Trump’s speech capped a whirlwind day in which he made a stop in Mexico City to meet with Pena Nieto for an hour, intensifying attention on Trump’s sharp rhetoric on immigration and Mexican trade.
Trump’s immigration views rocketed him to the top of the GOP field and propelled him to the Republican nomination, but the issue has bedeviled him in the general election campaign. Only about 1 in 5 Latino voters supports him, according to a recent Fox News poll. Some strategists believe his sharp tone and unsparing policy proposals may also be dragging down his support among other groups of voters who recoil at the vision of rounding up 11 million immigrants or blanch when Trump labels those crossing the Mexican border “rapists” and other criminals.
Trump’s speech came in Arizona, the heart of some of the nation’s fiercest immigration fights. Droves of supporters began lining up outside the convention center in 102-degree heat hours before Trump arrived.
Despite the focus on illegal immigration, the numbers are actually down. More Mexican immigrants and their children went back to Mexico from the U.S. between 2009 and 2014 than came to the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.
Arizona is one of many traditionally conservative states in the West that has mainstream Republican strategists concerned about the GOP’s hard-line turn on immigration — both in this election and what it portends for the future.
Voters in Arizona have supported only one Democrat for president since 1952. But the state’s large and growing Latino population has put the state on the map for Democrats. Polls there show a tight race between Trump and Clinton.