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In Stunning Reversal, Trump Suggests He'd 'Work With' Immigrants In U.S. Illegally

After signaling that his position on immigration is "to be determined" and that it could "soften," Donald Trump did an amazing thing — what amounts to almost a full about-face on the principal issue that has driven his campaign.

Trump indicated in a town hall with Fox News' Sean Hannity, which aired Wednesday night, that he would be in favor of a path to legalization for immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

"No citizenship," he said. But he added, "Let me go a 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."

He continued: "Now, everybody agrees we get the bad ones out. But when I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and I've had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me, and they've said, 'Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who's been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it's so tough, Mr. Trump,' I have it all the time! It's a very, very hard thing."

"Look, we have to follow the laws of our country," Trump said, before conducting a call-and-response with the audience. "Now, can we be, and I'll ask the audience. You have somebody who's terrific who's been here, right, long time — long court proceeding, long everything in other words to get them out. Can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out?"

Citing a hypothetical example of an immigrant who came into the country illegally but has been in the country 20 years and has "done a great job, has a job and everything else," Trump asked:

"Do we take him and the family ... and send 'em out? Or when somebody really has shown — it's called like the merit system, other than they did break the law in the first place, OK? And that's a little unfair to people but we're going to let people come in anyway ... So do we tell these people to get out or do we work with them and let them stay in some form?"

Trump stood by his stance that immigrants in the country illegally who have committed crimes should be "out on Day 1."

"That one is so simple," he said. "There are some things where you sort of feel bad, this one, we have these killers in this country."

Changing stance

Trump said earlier this year that his support was so strong, he could go out on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and he wouldn't lose his base. Well, that's about to be tested, because if there's one issue that has animated the Republican rank and file over the past decade, it's immigration.

Trump courted hard-liners on immigration in the primary campaign. In his announcement speech, he infuriated Latinos with his comments that Mexican immigrants entering the U.S. illegally were "rapists" bringing in "drugs" and and that "some," he assumed, "were good people."

His original immigration policy was written with the help of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, an immigration hard-liner.

Overall, Trump's supporters are split on how they view immigrants in the country illegally — according to a new survey from Pew Research Center, only 50 percent of Trump supporters agree that "undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. are more likely than U.S. citizens to commit serious crimes." However, most Republicans (79 percent) favor building a wall along the entire border with Mexico, the survey found — a policy Trump stood by on Wednesday night, and one that has been echoed at nearly every Trump rally.

That may help satisfy some supporters who take a hard line on immigration, like Krista Kosier, 51, who told the Washington Post that the wall is "the most important thing" to her.

"He's still going to build the wall. He's still going to get rid of the murderers and rapists and those wreaking havoc in our country," she said.

The reversal on deportations, though, comes after Trump called for a "deportation force" during the GOP primary, and went after fellow Republican candidates like Jeb Bush for their positions.

"The great majority of people that come to this country come because they have no other choice, they want to come to provide [for] their families. ... but the motivation — they're not all rapists, as you know who said ... these are people who are coming to provide for their families and we should show a little more respect for the fact that they're struggling," Bush said in a January debate.

"The weakest person on this stage by far on illegal immigration, is Jeb Bush," Trump hit back. "They come out of an act of love. Whether you like it or not, he is so weak on illegal immigration, it's laughable and everybody knows it."

And last year, Trump told NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that while he'd be open to keeping families together, "they have to go."

He was pressed on what would happen in cases where immigrants didn't have anywhere to return, and Trump responded: "We will work with them. They have to go. Chuck, we either have a country, or we don't have a country."

Trump's new position on legalization is essentially the House Republican position on the 2013 immigration bill. Legalization was the biggest flashpoint between Democrats and Republicans. A bill that included citizenship — but only after a wait for immigrants of more than a decade and needing to pay fines — passed with 68 votes in the Senate that year.

Democrats argued that a bill that didn't include citizenship amounted to millions of people being ushered into a second class. By not being citizens, they wouldn't have the right to vote, for example.

Arguably, no other issue has animated the GOP base more than immigration over the past decade since former Republican President George W. Bush, a former border governor, pushed for a similar bill in 2007.

Arizona Sen. John McCain was a principal advocate of that bill — and nearly saw his presidential campaign derailed because of it. He had to go on what amounted to an apology tour because of his support of the legislation. McCain would repeatedly tell New Hampshire voters that he'd gotten the message. McCain eventually won the nomination, but lost to Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.

After Mitt Romney called for "self-deportation," which sounded tame in comparison to the way Trump has talked about Latinos, Romney won only 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012. The Republican Party recognized the problem and after the election, a Republican National Committee report recommended moderating on immigration — seen as a threshold issue for many Latinos.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Amita Kelly is a Washington editor, where she works across beats and platforms to edit election, politics and policy news and features stories.