- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Donald Trump was supposed to deliver a major address on immigration Thursday, laying out a plan that would win over swing voters while reassuring his base that he is serious about enforcing the law.

Instead, he has postponed the speech, sent staggeringly conflicting messages about his plans and managed to anger Hispanic activists, who say there is little he can do to appease them at this point, and die-hard supporters, who say any backsliding on his strict deportation message will expose him as a pandering politician.

The wounds are self-inflicted. Mr. Trump has talked tough yet promised the possibility of leniency for illegal immigrants — often in the span of a couple of hours.

“His biggest problem is that he has no prior history in politics for people to weigh. He’s asking people to support him based on what he says lately,” said William Gheen, head of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee.

He said Mr. Trump is asking a lot from voters who have been burned repeatedly by politicians, particularly on immigration. “If Donald Trump significantly diverges from his promise to deport all illegals, he will end his own campaign or his own presidency. His campaign or his presidency will be wounded to the point of self-destruction.”

Mr. Trump rode to victory in the Republican primary race in part on the strength of his vows to build a border wall, crack down on sanctuary cities, enforce laws against hiring illegal immigrants and deport illegal immigrants.

As a presidential nominee on the campaign trail, he still promises to build the wall and enforce existing laws, but his campaign says he would prioritize criminals for deportation over illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. the longest and have ties to their communities. For those, Mr. Trump told Fox News on Tuesday, there could be a “softening” of his deportation policy.

“We’re not looking to hurt people,” the candidate said.

The verbiage on prioritizing criminals is particularly striking because that is how President Obama describes his policy.

Simon Rosenberg, founder of the NDN, a think tank that focuses on immigration issues, said Mr. Trump was “embracing the central tenet of the Obama era” by focusing on criminals.

“This is the only actual substantive change that we can discern, policy change, from the original Trump plan, and it will be seen as being problematic in many circles,” he said.

He said House Republicans have repeatedly tried to cancel Mr. Obama’s enforcement priorities, arguing that they subvert immigration law.

But Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who led those House efforts, said Mr. Trump’s rhetorical focus on criminals doesn’t bother him. He said it may be a change in tone but not a change in stance.

“I think he uses the expression much more broadly than the president,” Mr. King said. “I think when Donald Trump says criminals, he means criminals. And I think when he says people that overstay their visas need to go home, he means that.”

Mr. Obama says he is using prosecutorial discretion to boost illegal immigrants with serious criminal records to the top of the deportation list while those without serious records run little risk of being kicked out.

The president set deportation records during his first term, angering immigrant rights activists while failing to win over conservatives, who said he was cooking the books by mixing border arrests with rank-and-file illegal immigrants in the interior of the U.S.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has vowed to claim executive powers to expand the Obama administration’s two amnesty programs and said she would cancel raids designed to deport recent illegal immigrants.

Mr. Trump said that amounts to open borders. At the Republican National Convention last month, he hosted parents whose children were killed by illegal immigrants, and he has tied immigration to his call for law and order.

“We are going to enforce the law,” he says.

Mr. Rosenberg said Mr. Trump may have set himself up for an embarrassing revelation about his wife. Melania Trump’s immigration history is murky, but she said she first worked in the U.S. as a fashion model using what sounds like a tourist visa, which would have prohibited her from working.

There are also questions about how she qualified for a green card.

“If he’s so concerned about following the law, then he’s got to prove that his wife did,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

Mrs. Trump insists she is “in full compliance” with the law but has not released any documents that would prove it. Her online biography was taken down last month after questions about her education record arose.

For now, though, most of the focus is on Mr. Trump and whether his immigration plan will keep faith with his backers or whether he will soften his policy.

Mr. King said it would be difficult for Mr. Trump to retreat from his promises.

“All of the statements that Trump has made all along — you don’t change all of that policy that’s been laid out, and the text that’s been on his website, you don’t change that with a change in inflection in tone,” the congressman said.

The policy Mr. Trump has on his website calls for tripling the number of interior enforcement agents, requiring businesses to check applicants’ work status before they can be hired, canceling federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities and deporting all criminal aliens whom agents apprehend.

That policy did not explicitly call for deportation of all illegal immigrants, though Mr. Trump has embraced mass deportations when asked on the campaign trail — while also saying he wants to let “the good ones” return quickly.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports a crackdown, said Mr. Trump has fallen into the “amnesty trap” by getting baited into talking about immigration policy several steps down the road.

“What he’s doing here is groping his way toward a real-world policy from his initial Archie Bunker yelling-at-the-TV thoughts,” he said.

Still, Mr. Trump has not been hurt so far, and Mr. Krikorian said he has little doubt of the direction Mr. Trump will pursue if he wins the White House, based on the advisers he has assembled.

“I don’t trust Trump, but I trust the people working for him. And I trust Hillary to do the wrong thing without exception,” Mr. Krikorian said. “He could sell us out on everything and he’d still be better than Hillary.”

Mr. Gheen said he is backing Mr. Trump and is not worried about what he says before November. But he said he and other Trump supporters will be watching how the billionaire businessman governs if he wins the White House.

“Once you unleash the fire that he has, you can’t turn around on it. Once you become an immigration enforcement hard-liner, there’s no going back,” he said. “On this issue, once you commit to certain things, the people that you upset are never, ever going to be your friend.”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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