Donald Trump's hard-line, tell-it-like-it-is posture on immigration has been central to his rise in the polls. But what do actual hard-liners on immigration think about his proposals?
Two leading groups that advocate tighter immigration laws and have opposed congressional efforts to compromise on reform legislation have described Trump's positions as sketchy at best and “sugar-coated amnesty” at worst. Trump is given credit for thrusting the issue into the debate, but where he goes from there is worrisome, they say.
“To his credit, Trump has teed up the immigration issue, and it reflects the public's frustration with immigration,” said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group, using an apropos golf metaphor for the course-owning real estate tycoon. “The problem is, he's got a clumsy swing, and he keeps ending up in the rough.”
Dane was referring to Trump's recent attempt to articulate a position on how to address the legal status of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. The Republican presidential candidate in various interviews says he would divide those people into two categories — the “good ones” and the “bad ones” — but he has not described the criteria for who falls in which group.
He suggested deserving immigrants would be allowed to stay in the U.S., something the advocates at NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration group, consider amnesty. The comment earned Trump a “harmful” rating on the issue on its candidate scorecard. The group sent an email last weekend to its list of 1.5 million people, tell them to express their displeasure with the Trump campaign, said Roy Beck, the group's founder and president.
Beck says he's since seen Trump calibrate those statements. In interviews this week, the candidate has filled in the gaps, now suggesting he wants to force all immigrants out of the country and then allow some “good ones” back in through an expedited process.
“I want to move them out. I want to move them back in and let them be legal. But they have to be in here legally,” he told CNN on Wednesday night, adding he did not favor any path to citizenship.
“Later, down the line, who knows what's going to happen?” he said. “It's something I would think about, but right now, no, I'm not open to it.”
Beck likened Trump's sketchy proposal to “touch-back” plans that have been floated by some Republican politicians trying to find a middle ground between calling for the deportation of millions of people and endorsing the path to citizenship that immigrant rights advocates support.
The idea has never received much traction as the logistics of deporting millions of people only to let them back in — and ahead of others — has struck some on the left and right as unfair and expensive.
It would reward immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally, be costly to execute and still doesn't address the problem of immigrants filing jobs he believes should go to U.S. citizens, Beck said.
“All that cost and yet they're still coming back in taking jobs,” Beck said.
Dane wasn't on board either.
“The idea that somebody who's residing illegally has to leave, touch soil and reapply has been a means for politicians to sort of soft-peddle an amnesty,” Dane said. “It's an attempt to sugarcoat an amnesty because there's an intermediate step, but at the end of the day, by doing that, you're simply incentivizing more people to come into the U.S. illegally so they can do the same thing.”
Beck, who ranks former Sen. Rick Santorum highest on the scorecard, allowed that Trump may be getting closer to the target. He bumped up Trump's ranking to “mixed.” It could take time and coaching, he said.
“He's not a policy person,” Beck said. “I'm not saying he's necessarily wrong on those issues; he's just got a big learning curve ahead of him.”
Trump has been even more cryptic on the subject of the so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. On Wednesday, the candidate himself seemed perplexed.
"I have been giving it so much thought. You have — on a humanitarian basis, you have a lot of deep thought going into this, believe me. I actually have a big heart, something that nobody knows. A lot of people don't understand that. But the Dreamers, it's a tough situation. We're going to do something. And one of the things we are going to do is expedite. When someone is terrific, we want them back here," he said. "But they have to be legally. They're with their parents, it depends."