While seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Trump insisted that unauthorized immigrants "have to go," along with their American-born children (who are U.S. citizens), raising the total number of deportees to about 16 million. He said a "deportation force" could get the job done "humanely" within two years.
Although popular among Republican primary voters, that promise was self-evidently insane. Even assuming that Trump would bow to the legal reality that U.S. citizens cannot be deported, removing 11 million people in two years "would mean arresting more than 15,000 people a day on immigration charges, seven days a week, 365 days a year," as the American Civil Liberties Union notes.
Such a project would be a constitutional catastrophe as well as a logistical nightmare. "There is no conceivable mechanism to accomplish the roundup that Trump has promised while respecting basic constitutional rights," the ACLU warns.
Since "undocumented immigrants are not readily identifiable as such," deporting all of them would entail "tactics like suspicionless interrogations and arrests, unjustified and pretextual traffic stops, warrantless searches of workplaces and homes, and door-to-door raids in immigrant neighborhoods." If "practiced on a huge scale throughout the country, those activities would systematically violate the Fourth Amendment."
Whether or not Trump has read the Constitution, we know he reads polls, which show the vast majority of Americans oppose his expulsion plan. "It's a very, very hard thing," he conceded in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity last month, saying even many of his supporters think it's wrong "to take a person who's been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out."
In response to such concerns, Trump suggested he would be open to some form of legalization. Although there would be "no citizenship" and "no amnesty as such," he said, if unauthorized residents "pay back taxes," he would be willing to "work with them."
Trump's big immigration speech last week was supposed to clarify what he meant by that. Instead it muddied matters more.
"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," he said. "Those who have left to seek entry under this new system...will not be awarded surplus visas, but will have to apply for entry under the immigration caps."
That approach, which Trump described as "fair, just, and compassionate," sounds even less generous than the one he outlined a year ago. "We're going to try and bring them back rapidly, the good ones," he said then. "We will expedite it so people can come back in. The good people can come back."
Trump's softening seems more like a hardening, just in time for a general election in which most voters reject his mass deportation scheme, his border wall and his message that illegal immigrants represent an intolerable threat. Calling Mexico's president "wonderful" and allowing that "there are many illegal immigrants in our country who are good people" (up from "some" last year) probably won't be enough to reassure moderates or get Trump the Latino support he needs.
The polling firm Latino Decisions estimates that Trump needs at least 42 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the election. Mitt Romney, who said he would encourage "self-deportation" by making economic conditions intolerable for unauthorized immigrants, got just 27 percent in 2012, down from 44 percent for George W. Bush in 2004.
Four years ago, Trump himself attributed Romney's poor showing to his "crazy" and "maniacal" stance on immigration, which "sounded as bad as it was." Now Trump seems to think Romney was not crazy enough.