It would be funny if the stakes weren't so deadly serious. Donald Trump, who launched his campaign for the presidency by attacking Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and "criminals," is suddenly embracing the idea of working out a way to give legal status to undocumented immigrants who have been here a long time and have kept out of trouble.
Trump won't call it amnesty, of course, but his position is little different from what's in the "Gang of Eight" bill his allies on conservative talk radio and cable shows have been deriding as amnesty for years. Of course, Trump's position could change again between the time you begin reading this column and the time you finish it, but for the moment, let's take Trump at his (latest) word.
In a town hall meeting hosted by Sean Hannity this week, Trump said the following: "Everybody agrees we get the bad ones out. But when I go through and I meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject, and I've had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me, and they've said, 'Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that's been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it's so tough, Mr. Trump.' I mean, I have it all the time. It's a very, very hard thing." Indeed.
Trump said his version isn't amnesty. "No citizenship. Let me go a step further: They'll pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes. There's no amnesty, as such, there's no amnesty, but we work with them," he said.
Has Trump even read the Senate's Gang of Eight bill?
The legislation, sponsored by four Republicans -- Sens. John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake -- passed the Senate in 2013 but subsequently died in the House after conservative talk radio and cable news shows sparked a populist assault on the bill by crying "Amnesty!" But many of the bill's actual provisions would be much tougher than Trump's latest, admittedly sketchy, plan.
Immigrants who entered illegally would have to not only pay back taxes but also pay a $1,000-per-person fine, learn English and remain employed. Though the bill would provide a so-called path to citizenship, following that path would take a long, long time. During the first 10 years, the immigrants would be eligible for renewable temporary permits and then could apply for permanent residency. Only after three additional years -- 13 years in total -- could they apply for citizenship, and they would have to meet all the usual requirements to qualify.
Most importantly, all the provisions easing access to legal status for the undocumented would require that the government demonstrate that border security has improved significantly. Toward that end, the legislation would include an additional $3 billion in funding for more drones and other security measures, allow for the hiring of 3,500 additional border agents, and appropriate another $1.5 billion for more border fencing. The Department of Homeland Security would have to demonstrate it has achieved 100 percent surveillance along the Mexican border and can apprehend 90 percent of unlawful crossers at high-intensity cross points along the southern border before any permanent status or citizenship could take place. Moreover, no previously undocumented immigrant would be provided permanent resident status until all current legal applicants receive their green cards.
The bill is far from perfect, but it's not the free ticket to citizenship for lawbreakers that its detractors claim. Trump's latest comments that it makes no sense to deport millions of people who have lived in the U.S. for a decade or more -- which constitutes two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants here now -- are a far cry from what he had been saying for the previous 14 months. If he were a serious man rather than a provocateur, he'd have figured this out a long time ago. Better late than never? Maybe. We'll see how long he sticks to this new proposal after the anti-immigrant crowds he's stirred up turn on him.