Will im­mi­gra­tion pivot work?

GOP nom­i­nee at risk of alien­at­ing his base as he ma­neu­vers on is­sue

Baltimore Sun - - ELECTION 2016 - By Lisa Mas­caro

WASH­ING­TON — Don­ald Trump’s sur­pris­ing pivot on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion — a pol­icy shift that re­mains in flux — could bring one of the great­est risks he’s faced in an al­ready tur­bu­lent cam­paign.

Trump’s re­cent re­think­ing about whether to de­port all 11 mil­lion im­mi­grants in the coun­try il­le­gally, a sig­na­ture is­sue that has pro­pelled his cam­paign, is a stun­ning rev­er­sal for a can­di­date who once ridiculed such ideas as too soft or a form of “amnesty.”

Trump ap­peared to be test-driv­ing a more mod­er­ate ap­proach dur­ing a Fox News town hall this week. The idea, which sounded sim­i­lar to those of his Repub­li­can pri­mary ri­vals former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Florida, would al­low some im­mi­grants to re­main in the coun­try as long as they had no crim­i­nal records and agreed to pay back taxes.

The danger for Trump is clear: Can he per­suade his sup­port­ers to go along with a new di­rec­tion on im­mi­gra­tion — and pick up some ad­di­tional vot­ers with a softer tone — or will he belly-flop into the stack of pre­vi­ous Repub­li­cans who have been wounded by their chang­ing views?

For many of his ar­dent sup­port­ers, such a change may look like the kind of bait-and- switch they’d come to loathe.

Many GOP lead­ers have paid a price for revving up the base with hard-line prom­ises, for ex­am­ple, to re­peal Oba­macare or de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood, only to pull back in the fi­nal mo­ment and com­pro­mise.

Trump’s cam­paign soared largely be­cause he promised to be un­like those other politi­cians.

“It’s like he’s built a Trump Tower and now he’s try­ing to change the foun­da­tion just as he re­al­izes no­body’s buy­ing the apart­ments,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy an­a­lyst at the con­ser­va­tive Cato In­sti­tute.

There are signs that Trump — thanks largely to his in­tensely loyal fol­low­ing — might be able to nav­i­gate a mine­field that oth­ers could not, in­clud­ing former House Speaker John Boehner, former House Ma­jor­ity Leader Eric Can­tor and sev­eral of Trump’s de­feated pres­i­den­tial ri­vals.

Dur­ing the Fox town hall, Trump seemed to deftly ma­neu­ver the crowd to the view that long­time im­mi­grants who were oth­er­wise law-abid­ing should be al­lowed to stay in the coun­try, a far cry from his past vow to cre­ate a “de­por­ta­tion force” to kick out all 11 mil­lion im­mi­grants, in­clud­ing their fam­i­lies.

“We have the per­son, 20 years, been an up­stand­ing per­son, the fam­ily is great, ev­ery­one is great, do we throw them out or do we work with them?” Trump asked the au­di­ence. “No cit­i­zen­ship. Let me go a Don­ald Trump em­braces moth­ers who re­port­edly lost chil­dren to im­mi­grant vi­o­lence at a rally Tues­day in Austin, Texas. step fur­ther: They’ll pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes. There’s no amnesty, as such. There’s no amnesty, but we work with them.”

Trump called for a show of sup­port and the au­di­ence regis­tered its ap­proval for the ap­proach to work with im­mi­grants, rather than kick them out.

Some GOP stal­warts are won­der­ing whether Trump, in a kind of Nixon­goes-to-China way, might be uniquely po­si­tioned to bring GOP hard-lin­ers to a more rea­son­able po­si­tion when it comes to im­mi­gra­tion re­form.

“Who knew that it would be Don­ald Trump to come and con­vert the GOP base to sup­port­ing amnesty?” con­ser­va­tive ra­dio show host Rush Lim­baugh said with a laugh Thurs­day.

The de­tails of Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy re­main a work in progress. A planned speech this week was scrapped, but he is ex­pected to out­line more de­tails in an ad­dress next week in Phoenix.

In a CNN in­ter­view Thurs­day night, Trump seemed to cast doubt on his own soft­en­ing, sug­gest­ing that im­mi­grants would first need to leave the coun­try be­fore they could re­turn and reap the ben­e­fits of any le­gal­iza­tion pro­gram.

In many ways Trump has lit­tle to lose, as polls show his sup­port slip­ping among white vot­ers, es­pe­cially women, and pick­ing up only about 20 per­cent of Lati­nos, when most ex­perts say twice that amount is needed to win the White House. One poll found more than 80 per­cent of Lati­nos view him as racist.

Even if the shift does lit­tle to im­prove his stand­ing in the pres­i­den­tial race, his soft­ened tone could help the GOP with its broader ap­proach to im­mi­gra­tion re­form, an is­sue that has dogged the party since the 2012 elec­tion when nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney called for “self­de­por­ta­tion.”

Ad­vo­cates of im­mi­gra­tion re­form have pro­posed a way to al­low some im­mi­grants to come for­ward, pay back taxes and fines, and be­gin a path to­ward le­gal­iza­tion and, in some cases, cit­i­zen­ship.

Whether Trump will go that far or opt for an­other ap­proach re­mains to be seen. He con­tin­ues to in­sist he will build a wall along the border.

“He’s got­ten more prac­ti­cal,” said Roy Beck, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Numbers-USA, which fa­vors i mmi­gra­tion l i mits. “Those who have at­tacked Trump for be­ing too harsh should be pleased.”

GER­ALD HER­BERT/AP

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