Donald Trump vowed to hold the line on illegal immigration Wednesday but toned down his harsher anti-Mexican jibes as he strode onto the world stage, making his first visit with a foreign head of state and winning concessions on free trade.
Hours after his meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico City, Mr. Trump took to a stage in Phoenix and delivered a searing critique of the American immigration system, saying the country has ceded control of its decisions to corporations desperate for cheap workers and activists more worried about helping illegal immigrants than protecting U.S. security.
“Anyone who tells you that the core issue is the needs of those living here illegally has simply spent too much time living in Washington,” the GOP presidential candidate said. “There is only one core issue in the immigration debate, and that issue is the well-being of the American people.”
He promised to revamp the system to weed out low-skilled workers who compete with Americans, and to impose an ideological test to make sure those the U.S. admits believe in democracy and human rights.
As for illegal immigrants, he promised to detain and oust those caught at the border, vowed to deport on “day one, my first hour in office” as many as 2 million illegal immigrants with criminal records, and said he’ll re-establish partnerships that harness local police to assist in nabbing illegal immigrants.
He said criminals will be the top priority for removal, just as they are under President Obama, but he said anyone here illegally can be deported — reversing Mr. Obama’s policy that cuts more than 80 percent of illegal immigrants out of any danger of deportation.
“No one will be immune or exempt from enforcement,” he said.
He did open several windows for illegal immigrants seeking legal status, including saying they could go home and apply to reenter from there. He said they will be admitted based on limits he’ll set in the future.
As for those that don’t go home, he said perhaps, years in the future, if the U.S. gets a handle on the problem, he is open to talking about what to do with those that have managed to avoid deportation and stay.
The speech came hours after he met with Mr. Pena Nieto, and emerged to say Mexican immigrants are “beyond reproach” — a huge shift from last year, when he called Mexicans rapists and criminals.
Mr. Trump stumbled, though, when he touched on his iconic promise to build a border wall. He said he told Mr. Pena Nieto that both countries have the right to build barriers, but he said they didn’t “discuss” his vow to make Mexico foot the bill.
Mr. Pena Nieto didn’t correct Mr. Trump at a joint press conference, but later posted a Twitter message saying they did in fact talk about payment, and he told Mr. Trump up front that Mexico won’t pony up.
Trump campaign officials scrambled to explain their boss’ misleading statement, though the flap threatened to overshadow Mr. Trump’s nighttime speech laying out the long-awaited specifics of his plans to tackle illegal immigration in the U.S.
Even as immigration dominated the news, Mr. Trump made perhaps his biggest headway in Mexico on trade, with Mr. Pena Nieto saying he was open to new negotiations updating the North American Free Trade Agreement — the deal ratified by then-President Bill Clinton, which Mr. Trump says has sapped American jobs.
The Mexican leader said NAFTA has been good for his country and the U.S., but also said it could be revisited.
“The next president of the U.S. will find in my government a partner willing to build the route to modernize telecom so that it will become more effective and to generate more higher-quality jobs and better-paying jobs in both countries,” he said, according to the official translation.
Mr. Pena Nieto also chided Mr. Trump for his previous insults aimed at Mexico, but said the two men, and their countries, can get beyond that.
“Mexican people have felt hurt by the comments that have been made. But I am sure that his genuine interest is to build a relationship that will give both of our societies better welfare,” he said.
Immigrant rights advocates weren’t satisfied, saying the trip and Mr. Trump’s subsequent speech don’t erase the past year’s worth of barbs Mr. Trump has aimed at immigrants and, particularly, illegal immigrants.
“The truth is, Trump found himself between a rock and a hard place — trying to please those who support him for his racism, while attempting to moderate his appearance to gain support from suburban voters — who refuse to support him for the exact same reason,” said Cesar J. Blanco, chief at the Latino Victory Fund.
“But he can’t have it both ways, and Latinos won’t be fooled by his meeting with Pena Nieto or his play of words during the immigration speech tonight,” Mr. Blanco said.
Immigration has been a thorny political issue for years. Mr. Clinton pioneered a get-tough approach during his time in office, signing some of the strictest crackdown legislation in modern political history.
His wife, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, has been on all sides of the issue in her career — but recently has tacked far to the left, saying she would deport fewer illegal immigrants than President Obama, and would try to find ways to get more of them cemented into American society.
The debate comes even as the contours of the issue are changing.
Illegal immigration has slowed from the peaks of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Border Patrol regularly caught more than a million illegal crossers, and hundreds of thousands of others entered on visas and then stayed past the expiration — as happened with some of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
In 2015 the Border Patrol caught fewer people than any time in four decades, and though the numbers have ticked up this year, analysts say it’s evidence that fewer people are trying to jump the southwestern border.
Still, more than 1,000 are caught each day, and the latest trend is illegal immigrants fleeing poor economies and dangerous gangs in Central America. Meanwhile, the flow of Mexicans, who provided most of the mass illegal immigration of the 1990s and 2000s, has dissipated, and some analysts say it’s now a net zero, with the number of new Mexican illegal immigrants matched by those older illegal immigrants going back home or getting legal status in the U.S.
Even with the changes, some 11 million illegal immigrants remain in the U.S., and policymakers in Washington have spent more than a decade grappling with how to handle them.
Mr. Trump had delivered conflicting messages during the campaign, saying at one point that illegal immigrants “have to go,” but other times signaling that those who’ve been here the longest and have ties to their community could earn some form of legal status.
The areas where Mr. Trump has not budged are in promising to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with deportation agents, and in his plans to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Republican nominee even produced a policy paper laying out options to make Mexico foot the bill, including docking remittances of Mexicans in the U.S. to send to relatives back home, imposing new tariffs on Mexican goods or raising the fees on visas for Mexicans entering the U.S.
Wall politics are toxic in Mexico, however, and Mr. Pena Nieto said after the meeting that he told Mr. Trump his country won’t pay.
The Clinton campaign said Mr. Trump’s failure to solve the issue on his first meeting with the Mexican leader undercut his entire campaign. “It turns out Trump didn’t just choke, he got beat in the room and lied about it,” said John Podesta, the campaign chairman.
Mr. Trump’s campaign tried to explain away the discrepancy. Spokesman Jason Miller said that Wednesday’s meeting was just an initial get-together and it “would have been inappropriate” to get into the details of the wall.
“It is unsurprising that they hold two different views on this issue, and we look forward to continuing the conversation,” Mr. Miller said.
And Mr. Trump showed no signs of backing down.
“We will build a great wall along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall — 100 percent. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for the wall,” he said.