Donald Trump is running an ad in four swing states that graphically depicts the Southern border as being overrun by dark hordes. It flatly states that in Hillary Clinton’s America, the borders will be “open.” And it promises a hyper-tough response from President Trump, which is illustrated with cops carefully scanning the border and images of helicopters patrolling for fleeing invaders.
This represents the larger tale that Trump has been telling about immigration for the last year, one that is central to his whole candidacy: Unlike our current, feckless, “politically correct” leaders, who are not enforcing immigration laws and as a result allowing undocumented immigrants to snatch jobs from Americans, only Trump is tough, savvy at management and “politically incorrect” enough to do what really must be done: Expel all undocumented immigrants as quickly as possible, to Make America Safe And Great Again.
But in an interview with Bill O’Reilly, in which he responded to reports that he’s backing off of his vow of mass deportations – a promise he’s made many times – Trump basically admitted the whole story he’s been telling about immigration for the last year is a big scam.
Asked directly by O’Reilly whether he is “really rethinking your mass deportation strategy,” Trump replied: “I just want to follow the law. What I’m doing is following the law. . ..We’re going to obey the existing laws.” Trump added:
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“The first thing we’re gonna do, if and when I win, is we’re gonna get rid of all the bad ones. We have gang members, we have killers, we have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country – they’re gonna be out of this country so fast your head will spin. We have existing laws that allow you to do that. As far as everybody else, we’re going to go through the process. What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country. Bush, the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m going to do the same thing.”
At another point, Trump was pressed on whether he agreed with President Eisenhower, whose Operation Wetback, as O’Reilly said, “rounded them up” and “took them out.” Trump replied: “I don’t agree with that. I’m not talking about detention centers.” What that means: What Trump called “everybody else” – i.e., lower level offenders with jobs and ties to communities – will remain subject to removal, but will not be targeted by proactive, stepped-up deportation efforts.
Here are the key takeaways from all this:
▪ Trump tacitly conceded that our borders are not “open” and that our laws are being enforced. In saying that “Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country,” by using “existing laws,” Trump admitted that in fact, under Obama, the borders are not open, and the laws are being enforced — Obama is in fact deporting people at a high rate. Those are extraordinary concessions, given that his entire candidacy rests so heavily on precisely the opposite assertions.
▪ Trump tacitly admitted that Obama’s enforcement priorities are correct. In saying that “the first thing we’re gonna do” is “we’re gonna get rid of all the bad ones,” Trump basically endorsed what Obama has been doing for the last five years – prioritizing the use of enforcement resources to remove the most serious threats, while temporarily de-prioritizing the removal of the rest. This amounts to another important concession: That this act of prioritization is not tantamount to a refusal to enforce the law — contradicting a claim Trump and Republicans have been making for years — and is consistent with the enforcement of our immigration laws.
▪ But Trump did not make any meaningful gesture toward Latinos. It’s crucial to understand that Trump only moved in Obama’s direction in a very limited way. While he did endorse Obama’s underlying enforcement priorities, he did not embrace the idea of either legalizing all the remaining lower level offenders or of using executive action to temporarily shield them from deportation and allow them to work, so they can come out of the shadows and pay taxes. Indeed, he repeatedly said that “existing laws” will remain in place. So Trump’s position is that we should prioritize the removal of the most serious offenders, but all the rest should remain subject to removal, which is to say, in the shadows.
That is not a long-term solution to the problem. What all this really means is that Trump – the great fixer – is still not taking a real position on the core dilemma we face. We have the resources to deport only a fraction of the 11 million. And most people agree – many Republicans included – that many of those people are not criminals but rather came here to work and better their lives in a manner consistent with American history and values and are currently contributing to American life. So what should be done about them?
Democrats say we should focus those limited enforcement resources only on serious criminals and create a path to assimilation – with penalties – for the rest, rather than continuing to leave them in limbo, subject to removal. Trump basically admitted Democrats are right about the former. He also implicitly conceded that the solution he has offered for the rest for the last year now – their proactive, speedy removal – isn’t going to happen, while still refusing to say what should ultimately be done about them. Trump did not know that he was admitting all of this, because he doesn’t understand the finer points of immigration policy. But that is what happened.
The Washington Post