After weeks of hints that Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump was moderating his harsh and politically unpopular position on the mass deportation of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the conservative billionaire returned to his hard line rhetoric in what his campaign billed as “major policy address” on August 31st.  Broadcast live on the CNN news network and other media outlets, Trump again promised to commence mass deportations of immigrants on his first day in office, should he be elected, and repeated his signature campaign promise to build a “big beautiful wall” along the 3200 km border with Mexico.

The speech, delivered in the state of Arizona, which shares a border with Mexico and has its own tough anti-immigrant laws, came just hours after Trump flew to Mexico City for a surprise meeting with president Enrique Pena Nieto.  The closed-door meeting was, according to both Mexican government and Trump campaign officials, cordial and statesmanlike.  Mr. Trump has often castigated Mexico and Mexicans on the campaign trail, calling them “rapists” and “murderers” and referring to the country as “our enemy,” while President Nieto once publicly compared Mr. Trump to the Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler.

In comments to the press after the meeting, however, Trump had nothing but praise for the Mexican people and their president, calling Nieto a “friend” committed to resolving trade and immigration issues cooperatively.  When asked whether Nieto had agreed to Trump’s longstanding demand that Mexico pay for the border wall, the candidate said it had not been discussed.  Although Nieto said nothing in response at the time, he posted a tweet later in the day disputing Trump’s account and asserting he told the US visitor that Mexico would not fund the wall.  A statement by the Trump campaign in response to the tweet seemed to imply it had been discussed, arguing it wasn’t surprising the two leaders had “disagreed” at their first discussion.

10 point plan

The moderate tone of the Mexico City meeting fueled expectations that Mr. Trump would adopt a new, more conciliatory stance on immigration later that evening in Arizona.  Those expectations were immediately dashed, however, when he appeared before a cheering crowd of supporters in the Arizona capital of Phoenix to assert that Mexico would in fact pay for the wall “they just don’t know it yet.”  Over the next hour, Trump unveiled a 10 point program that, while fleshing out his past controversial comments, did little to suggest a new, more humane approach. 

On the key issue of how to handle the 11 million undocumented, mostly Latino, currently in the U.S. Trump said a final decision on their fate would come after the border was secure and new immigration policies that put “America first” were passed into law.  But he ruled out providing illegals in the United States with a path to eventual US citizenship, even those who have lived for decades in the United States, abide by the law and pay taxes. This “path to citizenship” has been central to past efforts to reform the US immigration system, but is opposed by Trump’s conservative supporters, who dismiss the proposal as “amnesty.”

Mr. Trump also promised to repeal President Obama’s presidential decrees delaying deportation for some undocumented aliens, including those brought over the border as young children, and undocumented members of the US military.  Other points in the plan include creation of a special “deportation task force” to track down and expel immigrants arrested, although not necessarily convicted of serious crimes, as well as the millions of foreigners who overstay their visas.

Immigration researchers put the total number of undocumented immigrants subject to immediate deportation at up to six million.  Mr. Trump also promised to triple the number of “deportation centers” to process deportees and immediately deport all those caught crossing the border illegally, a major change from current policy that sometimes allows border crossers without criminal records to join family members living legally in the United States.

Trump also pledged to cut off Federal money to so-called “sanctuary cities” where local police are barred from aiding Federal officials in rounding up and deporting otherwise law abiding but undocumented immigrants.  Over 300 cities and towns in the US, including such major areas as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, have passed local sanctuary laws and the cut off, if enacted, would ripple health, education and police budgets for tens of millions of people. He also repeated earlier pledges to halt immigration from areas suspected of support for terrorism and to develop an “extreme vetting” political and ideological test to allow in only immigrants “who share our values and love our people,” policies understood to be applied to Muslim immigrants.

Playing to the base

Critics of Trump’s immigration proposals, including human rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued for months that many of his plans are illegal or impractical or both. How his plans to immediately deport millions of immigrants can be squared with each immigrant’s legal right to a judicial hearing given the huge backlog of deportation cases in US courts, for example, has never been explained. Nor is it legal under the US constitution to use religion as a basis for denying anyone the right to enter the United States, as Mr. Trump would apply to Muslims.

But the cheering crowds at last night’s speech are a reminder that anti-immigrant rhetoric remains very popular with Mr. Trump’s conservative base, and virtually all analysts agreed that Mr. Trump was playing to that base in Phoenix.   The Washington Post’s Jose Del Real noted that Trump’s “fiery” speech showed that he was trapped between the need to mobilize his core anti-immigrant supporters and the much larger group of moderate voters, including many Republicans, who are turned off by his language. Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin dismissed the Phoenix speech as “the same old tripe” and castigated Mr. Trump as “hateful” and a “bully.”

The liberal New York Times caught the mood of most main stream news outlets when they editorialized that the speech was nothing but  “a reverie of immigrant-fearing, police-state bluster,” and caricatured immigrants as “criminal aliens…roaming our streets by the millions, killing Americans and stealing our jobs.”  Even some politically conservative media houses criticized the tone of the speech and asserted it would fail to win Trump the votes he needed to win the White House.”

On the other hand conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who warned Trump against softening his hard line anti-immigrant stance last week, tweeted “Trump's immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given” after the Phoenix rally, while rightwing columnist Ben Shapiro said the speech “hit the mark.”

Where it appears to have missed the mark, however, was among many of the Trump campaign’s few prominent Latino supporters. Jacob Monty, a member of Trump’s own National Hispanic Council, resigned in protest over the speech minutes after it ended, saying it  “was not realistic and not compassionate.” Another Council member, Ramior Pena, reports the news blog politico, sent an angry email to campaign officials blasting the speech and the advisory body: "The 'National Hispanic Advisory Council' seems to be simply for optics and I do not have the time or energy for a scam."

Nor is the fallout limited to the United States. In Mexico outraged academics and citizens have heaped scorn on President Nieto for meeting a man whose comments are deeply offensive to many Mexicans, and then failing to confront him. A prominent historian, Enrique Krauze termed Nieto’s decision to meet Trump “a historic error.” He said, “You confront tyrants. You don’t appease them.”  Estaban Illades the editor of the popular magazine Nexos, put it more bluntly. “To put it mildly, I think it was the biggest humiliation a Mexican president has suffered on his own territory in the last 50 years.” “He not only managed to make Donald Trump look presidential, which is an incredibly hard thing to do, he managed to forgive Donald Trump even though he didn’t actually offer an apology in the first place.”

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president

You may also like

Read Next