In an interview this weekend, Donald Trump officially dumped plans to deport all unauthorized immigrants, stating that he would focus only on criminals. Trump didn’t specify how he would handle non-criminals, but he shouldn’t hold back on advocating full legalization for fear of losing his backers. His earlier attempts at softening show he can maintain their support; in fact, Trump's supporters appear more interested in border security than deportation anyway.
During the early part of his campaign, Trump secured a huge amount of support among primary voters who opposed legalization. He then spent the remainder of his campaign trying to convince other Republicans that mass deportation was the way to go.
But it never worked. In fact, Pew Research Center polls show that more Republicans supported legalization after his campaign than before it—rising from 56 percent to 59 percent from March 2015 to March 2016. By the time of the election, 60 percent of self-described Trump voters told Pew that they favored legalization. Trump simply failed to win the argument.
In late August, it seemed like Trump realized that his case was falling on deaf ears, so he toyed with a pivot. During an interview on Fox, he polled a very large audience of supporters. When he asked if they favored mass deportation, the room remained mostly quiet. When he asked about a plan to let non-criminal unauthorized immigrants “stay in some form,” the crowd cheered. He promised that “we’ll work with them,” saying it was “tough to throw them out.”
The crowd’s reaction was in tune with most major Trump backers. While Rep. Steve King (R-IA) warned Trump to back away from his softening, he was pretty much alone in doing so. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Trump’s top immigration advisor and Rep. King’s longtime Senate ally on immigration, insisted that he would continue to support Trump. He told Fox News he would “be supportive of” a plan that dealt with “people who have been here a long time.”
Trump surrogate Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) said somewhat vaguely that he saw the posture as “a tweak” to accommodate “the fair, humane, human side of dealing with this.” Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) said that Trump didn’t “change what his principles are,” arguing that the goal was always securing the border. While the congressman still supported “enforcing the law,” he said he also considered himself a “humanitarian” and would be open to Trump’s new ideas.
Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), one of the first members of Congress to back Trump, agreed, telling CNN that “there’s just no logical way to deport 12 million people.” Instead, he called for a “rhetorical deportation,” where immigrants would “go into a room as illegal immigrants” and emerge “with work papers and Social Security numbers.”
Other members of Congress were more direct. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), another Trump backer, said he was open to a plan to give legal status to those here illegally. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI) went further, saying that he never believed Trump would really carry out 11 million deportations. “You have to use common sense,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
But after consulting further with his team, Trump reversed course, reading a speech a week later that said, “For those here today illegally who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and only one route: to return home.” But this plan is unrealistic, and many of his most committed supporters know it. Even Trump himself apparently now thinks it’s impractical. The only alternative to this plan is legalization, something Trump’s supporters already back.
Trump has proven that he can get away with advocating for real immigration reform—if he wants to. There is no reason to wait any longer to endorse a realistic path forward on the issue.