Did Donald Trump Just Help the Cause of Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

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"Obama may have founded ISIS, but he has deported a tremendous number of people."
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

At various points in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has argued that being “tough” on immigration means deporting 11 million undocumented people, barring all Muslims from entering the United States, and building an enormous border wall financed by Mexico. Unconstrained by mercy or logistical detail, Trump was able to claim the right flank of the GOP’s immigration debate, and, in so doing, the Republican nomination. For 14 months, he has served as a synecdoche for American xenophobia.

Now, he is using the authority he’s gained among nativist Americans to define ultranationalism down. On Monday night, the GOP nominee argued that, to really get tough on immigration, America needs to … do what Obama is already doing. Perhaps, with more energy. Definitely, with more “wall.”

“What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country,” Trump said on Monday night’s O’Reilly Factor. “Bush, the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m going to do the same thing.”

After Trump said that his first priority would be deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, the GOP nominee said, “As far as the rest, we’re going to go through the process, like they are now, perhaps with a lot more energy, and we’re going to do it only through the system of laws.”

This is less a “pivot” than it is a backflip. The essence of Trump’s argument here — “Establishment politicians actually have a pretty good handle on the immigration problem, so I’d like to follow in their footsteps” — is the antithesis of the mogul’s primary pitch. (Trump spent most of the GOP race lumping his opponents in with all the other “weak, sad politicians” who had forfeited control of our border.)

To keep his supporters from feeling whiplash, Trump has invited them to focus on that big, beautiful wall that he still wants to build. On Monday night in Akron, Trump told a crowd, “We’re going to build a wall, folks, don’t worry, we’re going to build a wall. That wall will go up so fast your head will spin.”

Trump’s repositioning is significant, and not just for being a world-historical flip-flop: If the GOP nominee succeeds in convincing a portion of his base that they care more about building a wall than they do about deporting all the “illegals,” he will have improved the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform.

The heart of any bipartisan immigration deal is this trade: Democrats get a pathway to legalization for the undocumented in exchange for allowing Republicans to spend billions of dollars producing an epic piece of security theater all along the southern border. The Senate’s “Gang of 8” bill from 2013 embodied this trade-off, outlining a (long and winding) road to legalization, while allocating $46 billion for hundreds of miles of border fencing, to be guarded by “surveillance towers, camera systems, ground sensors, radiation detectors, mobile surveillance systems, drones, helicopters, airborne radar systems, planes and ships.”

It’s supposed to be a win-win-win: Conservative voters get “tough” immigration policy, security contractors get mountains of pork, and undocumented immigrants get to stop living lives suffused with quiet terror.

The problem has always been that conservative voters — at least those who call their Congress members and vote in primaries — seem to care more about terrifying the undocumented than they do about building surveillance towers along the desert frontier.

For whatever reason, Trump is now trying to change that. Perhaps, the GOP nominee still has some genuine ambition to win in November, and recognizes that this task will be impossible without winning over a greater share of Hispanic Americans. Or maybe he was just never personally invested in deporting law-abiding immigrant families. As the Washington Post notes, the written immigration plan Trump released last August contains no mention of “mass deportation.”

Regardless, if Trump succeeds in turning conservatives’ make-or-break demand on immigration reform into building some kind of wall — rather than denying all hope of security to the undocumented — then he will foster a healthier environment for reform. Democrats have already agreed to build a big, beautiful fence. To finally deliver a pathway to legalization, they’d happily go ahead and call that a “wall.”

Whether Trump is actually capable of shifting the priorities of the GOP’s nativist wing is another matter. When news first broke that Trump was considering a “humane” approach to dealing with the undocumented, the right-wing backlash was swift. Plus, if current polls are to be believed, the actual reform package would need to be signed by president Clinton. And Trump has worked tirelessly to convince his supporters that Crooked Hillary desperately wants Syrian refugees to murder their daughters. So there’s a decent chance that the conservative grassroots wouldn’t want to be a part of any immigration reform bill that would have Hillary Clinton’s approval.

Still, Trump has had some success in shifting the ideological leanings of GOP voters, particularly on trade. Immigration is a much more salient issue to the Republican rank-and-file, but if Nixon could go to China, perhaps Trump can soften the hardliners’ resistance to amnesty — and then lose the Latino vote by enough to convince the rest of the party that it needs to make a deal.