What Does Trump Believe on Illegal Immigration and Amnesty?

Donald Trump
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In 2011, Donald Trump eclipsed Mitt Romney in presidential primary polls by going full-on birther, going as far as hiring private investigators to try to find Barack Obama's birth certificate. Then, like now, a percentage of the party was "excited" by Trump stirring the pot and picking on President Obama. But now, unlike then, Trump is being propped up by a handful of Clickbait Conservatives: conservative/entertainment talk radio hosts and websites looking to sell chaos to low-information voters for an audience at the expense of conservatism.

The net result is Trump's staying power has been much greater than would be expected. And rather than running on a racially-tinged conspiracy theory this time, his issue of choice in 2015 also happens to be one of the top issues of the decade: illegal immigration.

When Trump announced his run for President, his big splash was an attack on illegal immigration. Since then, it has been his main "issue" and two months later it'sliterally the only subject posted on his campaign website's "issues page." But if you though that Trump's position on illegal immigration would be fairly obvious by now, you would be quite wrong.  While Trump's take is clear on some issues (the wall) it is equally incomprehensible at other times (amnesty). So, let's try to unpack the web of contradictions. We'll start with the easy ones.

Border Enforcement

What we do know is that Trump wants to build a wall that will cover the entire border.

It will be the most fantastic and beautiful wall man has ever built. And somehow he will get Mexico to pay for it by using his incredibly impressive negotiating skills. He has property in Mexico, so he knows them, and they know him, and boom. Done. Wall paid for. If they don't pay for it, there will be all sorts of penalties and fees and such until they do.

Best of all the increased fees will hit the people who are actually following the law by obtaining crossing cards. Suckers!

Border security first is the basic position of almost all Republican candidates, though all have proposed various means of securing the border (walls, fences, more agents, drones, new technology, etc). After failing to get the much-aligned Gang of Eight bill passed, Marco Rubio has become a border-first advocate, noting that comprehensive immigration reform is unworkable because nobody believes the government will do what they say they will do. Most of the field - and even Trump initially - took and continues to take this exact position. Only Jeb Bush has indicated that he thinks a piece-by-piece immigration policy is unworkable, and seems to still favor comprehensive immigration reform. The main difference here is Trump is the loudest, which is a lot like declaring the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Obviously Trump is the loudest. He's claimed he is the first to talk about illegal immigration (absurd) and, when he made a trip to the border, claimed that Rubio and others refused to go, pretending he was the first to do that too. (In fact Rubio had gone months earlier.)

Deport Criminals

Trump wants criminal aliens deported immediately and sanctuary cities shut down. He also promises to break up Mexican gangs - who have apparently taken over Ferguson, Missouri - and deport them too. He also wants to end catch-and-release policies.

Obama's refusal to deport criminals and repeat criminals has been a major issue for years, and most of the candidates seem to be on the same page. Again, details vary from candidate to candidate, and Trump definitely appears to be the most militaristic here, promising a quasi-police state. (That said, I've argued that candidates like Jeb Bush have done the debate a disservice by downplaying many of horrible acts that come with illegal immigration.)


The question of what to do with those here is where Trump gets quite dodgy. Popular usage of "amnesty" refers to any policy that allows an illegal immigrant stay by grantin either citizenship or legal status.

So, where does Trump stand on amnesty? Well...

It's complicated. And it's complicated because Trump can't give a straight answer. And Trump can't give a straight answer because the options are either amnesty or mass deportation. (For most activists there is no grey area.) Anything that is not mass deportation is, at this point, considered amnesty. Here's the problem: the country - and even Republicans - overwhelmingly support a pathway to citizenship OR a pathway to legal status, not deportation. Trump seems unwilling to really say one way or the other, knowing he'll either be on the side of the unpopular and impossible or on the side of the "RINO's." And when he does say one way or the other, he usually contradicts himself, often within minutes.

This is easily the biggest question of the immigration debate and yet it's completely absent from his paper on immigration. So, what has he said? Everything.

His first take was to secure the border, and then decide what to do later. This is basically the position of all Republican candidates, and specifically popularized by Marco Rubio after failing on a comprehensive package. Trump later added that terrific, outstanding, and fantastic illegal aliens could stay, as long as we got rid of the criminals. Then it was some good ones can stay, some good ones will go. Well, we will see. During the first Presidential debate, it became everyone gets deported and then most of the good ones get expedited right back in. When asked about "Dreamers" - illegal immigrants brought in as kids - it flopped from they can probably stay to they had to go. Then he picked up birthright citizenship and wants to not only deport illegal immigrants but those born in the United States who have long been considered US citizens. Naturally, he seemed to walk back some of this, but, again, who can really tell?

Trump's most frequent answer - as indirect and convoluted as it may be - is that he supports amnesty, or at least what is commonly referred to as amnesty.

His regularly argues that illegal immigrants must leave, but then can be expedited back into the country. I guess this makes some people feel better about Trump's pro-amnesty position, but it seems both expensive and impractical. What exactly is the point of deporting and immediately re-importing 11 million people?

And there's more. Not long after Trump finally released his immigration plan Trump tweeted out the following: "When foreigners attend our great colleges & want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country." So after going Rambo about foreigners stealing American jobs - especially those in STEM fields - Trump proposes letting millions of foreign college students stay indefinitely, and maybe make them citizens.  Trump - who complained about the H1-B program in his "white paper" and tech firms hiring foreigners over Americans - added: "I want talented people to come into this country—to work hard and to become citizens. Silicon Valley needs engineers, etc." Some say he makes stuff up as he goes along. I say, you think?

Final take:

Donald Trump's position on the border isn't, in practice, much different than the rest of the Republican field's. All of the candidates support border security first, though the details are diverse. Everyone wants to crack down on sanctuary cities and deport criminal aliens. After the border is secured, everyone wants to "decide what to do" with the illegal immigrants already here. Trump is especially dodgy on the what to do with them question, though allowing them to stay is his most frequent position.

I fully expect the details of what Trump believes on immigration and amnesty to change. If he has given an interview since you started reading this, there's a good chance it already has. Understanding Trump's position is like taking a pound each of salt, flour, and sugar, blending them together, and then trying to separate them out again while someone is whacking you with a bat. While you are blindfolded.

So what's Donald Trump's position on amnesty and illegal immigration? Beats me.