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Opinion

Editorial: After a brief attempt to appear statesmanlike in Mexico, Trump plants his nativist flag even more deeply

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks about immigration during a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center Wednesday evening in Phoenix, Ariz.
(AP Photo/Matt York)

From the start, Donald J. Trump has predicated his campaign for the White House on fear and suspicion, racism and misogyny, and a remarkably light grasp of how the world — especially politics — actually works. He debates not with facts and analysis but with schoolyard taunts and unsupported braggadocio (“Believe me,” is his fallback policy explanation). Through it all, Trump’s hallmark issue has been immigration — in particular, his promise to toss out 11 million people who are living in the U.S. without permission, and then letting the undefined “good ones” back in.

After a series of recent suggestions by the campaign and Trump surrogates that the unpredictable presidential candidate might be softening his stance, Trump returned to the U.S. Wednesday from a surprise, and surprising, meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and planted his nativist flag even deeper into the ground. Echoing his take-no-prisoners tone of yore, Trump told a friendly audience in Phoenix that no one in the country illegally would be “immune or exempt” from deportation, and reiterated his position that those living in the country without permission would have to leave before seeking legal status. He said he would prioritize removals of those with criminal records and recent arrivals — much like the Obama administration’s current prioritization regimen — but did not offer a plan for how to round up and deport the rest, beyond adding more border patrol agents and creating special deportation task forces with state and local law enforcement. And there was no mention of how much such an effort would cost, let alone how it would be paid for.

Trump’s approach is simplistic and inhumane, betraying no understanding of the nuances of why so many people risk their lives and freedom to live in the shadows of mainstream America, or of the practical and moral challenges of sending them all back. For someone who boasts of his business acumen, Trump’s approach is revealingly ignorant of the importance to the American economy of a segment of the population he deems undesirable. And forcing the parents of 4.5 million American-born children out of the country is cruel, an unfitting proposal from the would-be leader of the free world.

Trump spelled out a 10-point plan that includes some aspects worthy of contemplation, such as installing a biometric system at points of entry to better track those who fail to leave when their visas expire, and working to persuade recalcitrant countries to take back people the U.S. decides to deport, something not all countries do now (under a Supreme Court ruling, those who serve criminal sentences here must be released after they’ve done their time if they can’t be deported). He also called for an immigration reform commission, which sounds like the kind of government slow-go you’d normally expect him to scoff at.

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But the core of Trump’s plan is rooted in the idea that all those living here illegally can and should be kicked out. And, yes, he will still build that silly Pacific-to-Gulf wall, and somehow make Mexico pay for it. Visiting Mexico City earlier in the day, Trump spoke more positively about Mexicans than he has in the past, extolling their contributions to American society and recognizing that the border problem is more than just people sneaking over — a flood of drugs northward and guns and drug profits southward are significant problems for Mexico. This from the man who complained that Mexico was sending the United States rapists.

And while Trump tried to come across as statesmanlike during his trip to Mexico, he rained on his own parade by telling reporters, with Peña Nieto beside him, that the two men had discussed building the wall but not who would pay for it. Peña Nieto said nothing then but later issued a statement contradicting Trump. “At the beginning of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.” A Trump spokesman later offered a muddled clarification that the meeting “was not a negotiation, and that would have been inappropriate. It is unsurprising that they hold two different views on this issue.” How is it unsurprising that two men can walk away from a conversation with such opposing takes on what was said?

“Believe me,” indeed.

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