Donald Trump muddles hardline immigration stance from GOP primary

Donald Trump’s nebulous immigration policy appears to be shifting away from the promise of mass deportations to something a bit more tenable: a focus on criminals living in the United States illegally.

During the primary campaign, Trump advocated for a “deportation force” to remove the estimated 11 million people who have illegally immigrated into the United States. The proposal, along with his call for a massive border wall that Mexico would pay for, fired up the red blood of the party’s base.

But recent reports have suggested that the immigration hardliner may be looking at softening his stance as the November election approaches.

Last weekend, BuzzFeed and Univision reported that he told a Hispanic advisory council he would support legal status for some immigrants. The Trump campaign insists his position hasn’t changed.

Amid talk that Trump has flip-flopped, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked the Republican candidate Monday night if he was actually rethinking his mass-deportation policy.

“I just want to follow the law. What I’m doing is following the law,” Trump replied.

On “The O’Reilly Factor,” Trump outlined a two-tier immigration policy: Violent criminals will be deported “so fast your head will spin” and others will go through the process currently in place, but with “perhaps a lot more energy.”

“We got gang members. We have killers. We have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country,” he said. “We’re going to get them out, and the police know who they are. They’re known by law enforcement who they are. We don’t do anything. They go around killing people and hurting people.”

Trump said he would deal with illegal immigration using laws that are already on the books. To justify his new position, he cited the examples of former President George W. Bush, and, somewhat surprisingly, President Obama.

“What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country. 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,” he said.

The real estate magnate’s focus on deporting criminals does in fact echo current Obama administration policies. In November 2014, in an address to the nation, the president said, “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids. We’ll prioritize, just like law enforcement does every day.”

O’Reilly pressed Trump on the logistics of deporting people en masse and took issue with the prospect of the government placing people in a “detention center” until their immigration status can be determined.

Trump — who during the primary praised the Eisenhower administration’s mass-deportation program — swiftly shut down O’Reilly’s suggestion that he supported rounding people up and placing them in a detention center.

“You don’t have to put them in a detention center. Bill, you’re the first one to mention detention center,” Trump told the Fox News host. “I never even heard the term detention center. I’m not going to put them in a detention center.”

Trump steered the conversation back toward targeting violent criminals and going through a fair process for everyone else, “only through the system of laws.”

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter immigration restrictions, likened Trump’s earlier comments to a crotchety uncle spouting off at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

“What I think we’re seeing now is groping toward an actual policy that is animated by the same concern over illegal immigration, but is actually potentially workable in the real world,” Krikorian told Yahoo News. “We’re not going to be deporting 12 million people. No immigration restrictionist thinker has ever suggested that. It’s not practical. It’s not going to happen.”

Krikorian supports increasing deportation, securing the country’s borders and making sure visitors do not overstay their visas. Such actions, he said, would result in a “decline of the illegal population over time.”

“It’s a process, not an event,” Krikorian continued. “What we’re seeing now, I think, is a more grown-up approach. …. I don’t see it so much as a flip-flop as a movement from the amorphous and knee-jerk reaction to something more solid and specific.”