KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI/PHOENIX ARIZONA/WILMINGTON OHIO/WASHINGTON – Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on illegal immigration has obscured a potentially historic policy shift — the Republican presidential nominee is the first major party candidate in modern memory to propose limiting legal immigration.
In his speech on immigration Wednesday night, Trump capped a list of steps to combat illegal immigration, with a final pledge to completely revamp the country’s legal immigration system in order to lessen the number of people allowed into the United States. “We will reform legal immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers, the forgotten people,” Trump said. “Workers. We’re going to take care of our workers.”
Trump talked about limiting immigration to its historic norms. The share of foreign-born people in the United States — 13 percent of the population — is at its highest level since 1920. By making the case in a nationally televised address that immigration overall has to be limited, Trump has embraced the ideals of a small group of activists who, for decades, have sought to sharply reduce all forms of migration to the United States.
“It’s a big change,” said one of those activists, Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, who argued that Trump can espouse ideas that previous politicians, dependent on campaign contributions from business, cannot. “The politicians who are major speakers on this have always focused on rule of law.”
Since the 1990s, politicians who have taken a tough stance on immigration have usually come out against amnesty for anyone living in the country illegally, but spoke favorably of legal immigration. Many business groups that traditionally support the GOP seek higher levels of legal immigration. Advocates say the push underscores how necessary migration is for the economy, while critics contend it pushes wages down.
“For Trump, it’s ‘I’m all against immigration, legal or otherwise, full stop’ — which is a massive departure for the Republican party,” said Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum Action Fund. “He wants to turn around the demographic trends of the country and return the United States to a majority white country.”
It’s also a stark contrast with Democrat Hillary Clinton, who wants to expand President Barack Obama’s order deferring deportation for many in the country illegally, and supports measures that would expand legal immigration.
The demographic transformation by legal immigration dwarfs that resulting from illegal entry. The U.S. Census estimates that whites will be a minority in about 30 years, with the number of immigrants on the rise.
The upswing in immigration started in 1965 with the removal of racially based immigration quotas that favored immigration from European countries over the rest of the world. Some 42 million people currently live in the U.S. who emigrated from other countries. An estimated 11 million of them are here illegally.
Those who want to limit migration say the concern is economic, not racial. Though most economists believe immigration is a net benefit to the economy, opponents argue it disproportionately hurts blue-collar workers by lowering wages. Immigration restrictionists note that this used to be a bipartisan position. They point to a 1995 commission chaired by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, a prominent black liberal Democrat, that called for limiting immigration to protect U.S. workers.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies argued that discussing appropriate levels of overall immigration, rather than focusing on people breaking the law to stay in the country, can defuse racial tension around the issue.
“In the right hands it can drain the issue of some of its vitriol — it has nothing to do with whether you’re Mexican or Ukrainian,” Krikorian said. “It’s about the numbers.”
Trump did not get into the details of how he would restrict legal immigration Wednesday night, instead calling for a commission the revamp the nation’s immigration laws and sunsetting visa provisions. Some of his proposals, like changing the immigration system to focus more on high-skilled laborers, are similar to ideas in a 2013 immigration bill that stalled in Congress because it would let many of the 11 million people in the country illegally remain here.
But others are a sharp departure. Trump said he’d oppose allowing in immigrants from countries with a history of terrorism and, on his campaign website, he calls for companies to hire unemployed Americans before importing foreign workers on visas.
Todd Schulte of FWD.us, a pro-immigration group founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, said those hiring provisions were designed to make immigration impossible. “The level of bureaucracy that goes into that in a fast-moving global economy — you are cutting off these companies’ ability to hire and grow,” Schulte said. “He’s preying on this zero-sum mentality that there’s a fixed number of jobs here. That’s completely false.”
Doris Meissner, the former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that Trump’s proposal to limit immigration is in line with a theory that after bursts of immigration the country should limit migration. But she noted that the global economy has been transformed and that if the country doesn’t let more people in legally, they may arrive illegally instead.
“It has to be a regulated system that reflects the market,” Meissner said. “Otherwise, it’s prohibition — and you remember how that worked out.”
Trump is meanwhile retreating from his vow to deport everyone living in the United States illegally, even as he sticks with an aggressive tone on illegal immigration and remains committed to building a physical wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
He promised Wednesday to remove millions of people living in the United States illegally if elected, warning that failure to do so would jeopardize the “well-being of the American people.”
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump said in a highly anticipated speech hours after his surprise meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
But the billionaire also said the effort of a proposed immigration task force in a Trump administration would focus on removing criminals and others seen as security threats, as well as people who have overstayed their visas.
Left unanswered by Trump: What would happen to those who have not committed crimes beyond their immigration offenses?
Aimed at ending weeks of confusion over just where he stands on immigration, Trump’s fiery speech was filled with applause lines for his loyal supporters.
Anyone living in the country illegally who is arrested “for any crime whatsoever,” he said, will immediately be placed into deportation proceedings. “There will be no amnesty,” he added, saying immigrants in the country without permission who wish to seek legal status must return to their home countries in order to do so.
But there was no direct mention of a core promise of his primary campaign — to create a “deportation force” that would remove all of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
Trump instead repeated the standard Republican talking point that only after securing the border can a discussion begin about all such immigrants, ducking the major question that has frustrated past congressional attempts at remaking immigration laws.
That omission didn’t bother Dan Stein, who leads the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that pushes for stricter policies. He called Trump’s speech the outline of “a coherent and workable strategy.”
“But even more important than the details of the plan itself,” Stein said, “Trump laid out the most fundamental principle for true immigration reform: The policy exists to protect and serve ‘the well-being of the American people,’ and ‘protect all aspects of American life.'”
Critics, meanwhile, said Trump’s glossing over the fate of people who are peacefully living in the U.S. without permission doesn’t make up for his overall approach.
“It is still the most extreme position of any modern presidential candidate,” said Frank Sharry, a leading immigration advocate. “It is deeply unpopular with voters, and profoundly un-American.”
Even as he beat a retreat from his earlier pledge to deport all illegal immigrants, Trump’s aggressive tone in Phoenix marked a shift from earlier in the day. A much more measured Trump described Mexicans as “amazing people” as he appeared alongside Pena Nieto in Mexico’s capital.
The good feelings from his first meeting with a head of state as his party’s presidential nominee lasted only a short time, as a dispute arose in the hours after he left over the most contentious part of his plans to fight illegal immigration: his insistence that Mexico pay to build the wall along the roughly 2,000-mile border.
Trump told reporters during his afternoon appearance with Pena Nieto that the two men didn’t discuss who would pay for the construction, pegged in the billions. Silent at that moment, Pena Nieto later tweeted, “I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”
With the meeting held behind closed doors, it was impossible to know who was telling the truth.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine said Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” that even if Trump’s account is accurate, it showed he “folded under pressure” by not raising the issue with Pena Nieto. On “CBS This Morning,” Kaine said Trump “didn’t have the guts to look the Mexican president in the eye” and demand that Mexico pay for the wall.
Trump told the rowdy Arizona crowd that he respects the Mexican president. “We agreed on the importance of ending the illegal flow of drugs, cash, guns and people across our border and to put the cartels out of business,” he said.
Yet, standing on American soil, he addressed directly a question he sidestepped when asked in Mexico.
“Mexico will pay for the wall, 100 percent,” he said. “They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for the wall.”
The Mexican president, however, said on Twitter that the subject was among the first things the men discussed. “From there, the conversation addressed other issues, and developed in a respectful manner,” Pena Nieto wrote.
Trump was cheered in Arizona, but his appearance in Mexico sparked anger and protests. The candidate is deeply unpopular in Mexico due in large part to his deriding the country as a source of rapists and criminals as he kicked off his campaign. He piled on in the months to come, attacked the country over trade, illegal immigration and border security.
Campaigning in Ohio, Democrat Hillary Clinton jabbed at Trump’s Mexican appearance as she promoted her own experience working with foreign leaders as the nation’s chief diplomat.
“People have to get to know that they can count on you, that you won’t say one thing one day and something totally different the next,” she told the American Legion in Cincinnati.
Some of Trump’s Hispanic backers are distancing themselves from the nominee after he stood by a hard-line approach to illegal immigration in a key speech and ignored intra-party calls to soften his tone.
Trump reiterated Wednesday that the only way undocumented foreigners could live in the United States legally under his presidency would be to leave and apply for re-entry.
But the businessman, trailing Clinton in opinion polls, did back away from promising to deport immediately the 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally and said he would prioritize those with criminal records.
While polls show a large majority of Hispanic voters oppose Trump, the withdrawal of support from among his small group of Latino backers underscores how difficult it is for Trump to broaden his support with minorities and moderate voters.
Alfonso Aguilar, who recently organized a support letter on behalf of Trump, said he felt “disappointed and misled” by the fiery speech and withdrew his backing.
“For the last two months he said he was not going to deport people without criminal records. He actually said that he was going to treat undocumented immigrants without criminal records in a humane and compassionate way,” Aguilar told CNN on Thursday. He is the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles group.
Trump used an appearance in Phoenix on Wednesday to clarify his stance on illegal immigration after prevaricating on the issue last week. He returned to the hardline rhetoric that powered him to victory in the nomination race over 16 rivals, heartening those conservatives drawn to Trump by the issue.
Some members of a council Trump formed last month to advise him on Hispanic issues expressed reservations about or cut ties to his candidacy after the Phoenix speech.
Jacob Monty, a Texas attorney and member of the group, said he was withdrawing his support and would not vote in the Nov. 8 election.
“There was nothing pro-business in that speech,” Monty told MSNBC. “We were hoping for some glimmer of the Donald Trump that we met with a week and half ago, but it never came.”
Panel member Ramiro Pena, a Baptist pastor in Texas who spoke at the Republican National Convention in July, told party leaders that he was reconsidering his support, according to an email obtained by Politico.
Other Latino advisers, including Florida pastor Mario Bramnick and Kentucky State Sen. Ralph Alvardo, said they would continue working with the Trump campaign.
At a campaign rally on Thursday in Wilmington, Ohio, Trump said his immigration plan would treat everyone with “dignity, respect and compassion” but prioritize compassion for American citizens and include ideological screening.
“We only want to admit those into our country who share our values and love our people,” Trump said.
Trump’s Phoenix address, which was flagged as a major policy speech, occurred just hours after he met Pena Nieto.
Clinton’s campaign called Trump’s immigration speech a “disaster” and said it would begin running advertisements in Arizona, which traditionally supports Republican White House candidates.
The Clinton campaign is already running commercials in the traditional battleground states of Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.