Donald Trump’s tough talk on illegal immigration was a big part of the reason Dave Hagstrom and many others in this booming Phoenix suburb supported him for president. “Walls make good neighbors,” Hagstrom said.
So when the president moved this week to cut a deal — with Democrats no less — to block the expulsion of 800,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, was Hagstrom disappointed?
Not at all.
“If you were to deport them, where would they go?” Hagstrom, 60, a car-warranty manager, asked on his way to a Bible-study dinner at an upscale shopping mall. “To send them across the border would be inhumane almost. There’s no life for them there.”
Trump’s fiery rhetoric and promise to seal the U.S. border with Mexico attracted millions of supporters in last year’s election, many of them older white conservatives like the ones who repeatedly elected immigration hard-liner Joe Arpaio as sheriff here in Maricopa County.
But as Trump shifted this week to a softer approach on the young immigrants in legal limbo through no fault of their own, many of his most die-hard supporters moved right along with him — among them Arpaio, who was ousted in November by voters tired of his inflammatory approach.
In more than a dozen conversations with Trump voters in this sweltering Sonoran Desert oasis, not one found fault with Trump’s abandonment of his vow to deport the young immigrants, often referred to as Dreamers. In the bargain, he said, Democrats agreed to much tougher border enforcement, though not construction of a physical wall.
“I’m a believer in America First,” Joe Dahlstrom, 45, a Mesa golf course owner, said as misters sprayed him and his 4-year-old daughter, Gracyn, outside the Panera Bread where they stopped Thursday night for a family dinner.
“But I also think that at this point we just have to take a hard look at who’s here,” Dahlstrom said. “And if they’re good people who are doing the right things and have assimilated, I think a plan needs to happen.”
Young immigrants brought to the United States illegally were able to get work permits and a reprieve from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Trump halted the Obama administration program last week, but gave Congress six months to try to come up with a replacement.
Even Trump’s willingness to bypass Republicans in Congress and work with Democrats to strike an immigration bargain failed to faze supporters like Dave Buckett.
“His party doesn’t back him, so he might as well go to the competition,” said the 76-year-old retiree from nearby Gilbert. “There’s a lot of swamp on both sides of the fence. I think there’s more on the Republican side than people like to think. Sad to say.”
The deal with Democrats and willingness to accommodate Dreamers mark a striking turnabout for Trump.
During the 2016 campaign he often tried — depending on his audience — to avoid explicit statements regarding the Dreamers, who, polls show, are viewed with sympathy by a majority of Americans.
But speaking directly to supporters, as he did in a fiery August 2016 speech in Phoenix, Trump left no doubt that he favored their expulsion. He vowed to reverse President Obama’s “illegal executive amnesties” for millions of immigrants, including Dreamers.
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump flatly stated. “That is what it means to have laws and to have a country.”
The sole route to legal status for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, Trump told backers, would be to “return home and apply for reentry like everybody else.”
Arizona, a state renowned for taking one of the hardest lines on illegal immigration in the country, has spent years at the forefront of the issue, as both a major point of illegal entry to the U.S. and home to several of the most prominent voices in the debate.
Arpaio, who served six terms as sheriff of Maricopa County — which takes in Phoenix and its Republican-leaning suburbs — and former Gov. Jan Brewer became national figures for their harsh rhetoric and uncompromising stance.
By contrast, the state’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, have backed comprehensive legislation that would toughen border security while providing a path to permanent residency for the millions of immigrants who came to the country illegally but have since proved upstanding citizens.
Both expressed support this week for the broad outlines of the compromise that Trump forged over dinner at the White House with Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the top two Democrats in Congress.
“It’d be fine with me,” said McCain, a leader of the 2013 effort to pass sweeping immigration legislation, which passed the Senate but died in the House. “What we need is what I’ve been advocating for years — and we’ve already done it with 68 votes — and it’s comprehensive reform.”
Flake, who was also part of that earlier bipartisan effort, suggested the contours of this week’s agreement could produce a deal. “I hope so,” said Flake, who faces a tough 2018 reelection fight. “I want it.”
While some of the loudest voices on the right have been savage in their criticism of the president — “At this point who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?” provocateur Ann Coulter tweeted — surveys suggest rank-and-file conservatives are more willing to go along with the president.
One bipartisan survey, conducted in May, found that nearly eight in 10 Trump voters supported continuation of the program that protects Dreamers from deportation, if that was the president’s choice. “If Trump leads, his base will follow,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, who helped conduct the research.
Indeed, even Arpaio seemed willing to go along with the compromise reached this week, if Trump thinks it best.
“He’s trying to make deals and get stuff done,” said Arpaio, a staunch supporter of the president who faced a prison sentence for racial profiling before Trump pardoned him last month.
That suits people like Joseph Wise just fine.
“I know a lot of these kids,” said Wise, 75, a retired electrical engineer from Gilbert, who paused to talk about Trump and immigration as he loaded groceries into the back of his sport utility vehicle. “They’re good kids. I’ve talked to some of them about how they crossed the border and barely survived.”
To Steve Feld, it makes no sense to deport young immigrants smuggled into the U.S. by their parents. ”You can’t send them back if they grew up here,” the 60-year-old locksmith said on his way to buy a birthday gift for his grandson at a Target in Mesa. “That’s not fair.”
Not that Trump’s supporters have given up on the border wall or tough security measures to stop illegal immigration.
Sheryl Dressel, 61, a retired vision therapist from Chandler, resents hearing “Press 2 for Spanish” on automated phone greetings, and she opposes driver’s licenses for immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
But she, too, has no problem with Trump agreeing to let the Dreamers stay in the United States, so long as they don’t commit crimes.
“They don’t know Mexico,” she said as she headed into a Mesa grocery store. “They’re Americans.”
Staff writers Kurtis Lee in Los Angeles and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report