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PHOENIX — After days of hints that he might soften his approach to appeal to more moderate voters, Donald Trump reiterated his hard-line proposals for tackling illegal immigration, insisting there would be “no amnesty” for those who come into the country illegally and proposing restrictions to limit legal immigration as well.
In a highly anticipated policy speech delivered before several thousand supporters packed into a convention hall here, the Republican presidential nominee bucked predictions that he might move to the middle on a divisive issue, reviving an aggressive approach to a policy issue that has driven his unlikely bid for the presidency.
Lamenting a “broken system” that has put America’s safety at risk, Trump doubled down on controversial proposals he’s stated before, including his pledge to institute a values test for those seeking entry into the country — to determine whether they truly “love” America and are willing to assimilate. He also vowed to crack down on those who overstay their visas and aggressively deport illegal immigrants who have been arrested for crimes — even before they are convicted.
And contradicting aides who suggested he might dial back his proposal for a mass deportation of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, Trump vowed there would be no citizenship offered to those who enter the U.S. illegally.
“For those here illegally today who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only: To return home and apply for re-entry like everybody else under the rules of the new legal immigration system that I have outlined today,” the GOP presidential nominee declared. “There will be no amnesty.
“People will know that you can’t just smuggle in, hunker down and wait to be legalized. It’s not going to work that way. Those days are over,” Trump later added.
And just hours after he sounded a more diplomatic tone during a quick jaunt to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the southern border of the U.S. — and insisted, as he has at nearly every campaign rally in recent months, that Mexico would foot the bill “100 percent.”
“They don’t know it yet, but they are paying for it,” Trump declared.
The GOP nominee’s comment came after he insisted during a press availability in Mexico City that he had not broached the subject of who would pay for the proposed border wall during his sit-down with the Mexican president.
His statement was later contradicted by Peña Nieto, who said in a message on Twitter that he had told Trump Mexico would not finance the wall. Trump did not directly mention the controversy, instead lavishing praise on the Mexican leader. But he appeared to hint at the dustup. “Great people, great leaders,” he said. “Paying for the wall.”
Trump’s speech came after days of uncertainty during which the candidate and his aides appeared to waffle on his immigration approach. Over the past two weeks, Trump has publicly wavered back and forth about whether he would allow illegal immigrants already here a path to some form of legal status. In a Fox News interview last week, Trump notably softened his view, telling host Sean Hannity there would be “no amnesty, but we will work with them.”
Among other things, he suggested he’s considering a plan that would allow those in the U.S. illegally to stay if they pay back taxes — a proposal similar to those suggested by former GOP rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and even President Obama. Asked for clarification, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and other aides danced around the issue, insisting the GOP nominee plans to “enforce the law,” but do so in a “humane” way.
But in Arizona, Trump was back to being Trump, offering a rowdy crowd plenty of red meat in what was clearly a speech aimed at energizing his base. Even so, he seemed to offer mixed signals at times. After listing a litany of reforms he’d like to accomplish, including building the wall and establishing a system of “extreme vetting,” which he said would weed out potential terrorists, Trump suggested only then would the country be able to consider how to address illegal immigrants in the nation — contradicting his earlier statement of no path to citizenship for those already here.
“In several years, when we have accomplished all of our enforcement goals and truly ended illegal immigration for good, including the construction of a great wall and the establishment of our new lawful immigration system, then and only then will we be in a position to consider the appropriate disposition of those who remain,” Trump said. “That discussion can only take place in an atmosphere in which illegal immigration is a memory of the past, allowing us to weigh the different options available based on the new circumstances at the time.”
The back-and-forth suggests continued tension inside the Trump campaign as it plots a pathway to victory in November. A Trump adviser said the candidate and his aides are split over how to appeal to the independent and swing voters Trump desperately needs if he is to defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, versus energizing his conservative supporters in what some believe could be a purely base election for both sides.
Since shaking up his campaign team earlier this month, Trump has tried to stay on message, delivering prepared remarks via teleprompter that included lines designed to appeal to African-Americans and Latinos — two voting blocs where polls show he lags far behind Clinton. On Wednesday, Trump offered a few appeals to those groups, repeating his suggestion that Clinton’s lax policies toward immigration reform translate into fewer jobs and opportunities for blacks and Hispanics.
But mostly the speech, which was largely crafted by senior aide Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chief who is now CEO of the Trump campaign, was an address aimed at Trump’s base.
At one point, Trump warned ominously of an influx of lawlessness if the nation’s borders aren’t strengthened, and he warned that he is the nation’s last hope.
“This election is our last chance to secure the border, stop illegal immigration and reform our laws to make your life better,” Trump said. “This is it. We won’t get another opportunity. It will be too late.”