By Steve Holland
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump held out the possibility on Tuesday of a softening of his hardline position on illegal immigration, a move that could help move him to the political center but hurt him with his most ardent supporters.
In an immigration town hall event with Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, Trump was asked whether he would be willing to change U.S. law to accommodate those illegal immigrants who have been contributing to American society, obeyed laws and have children.
"There certainly can be a softening because we're not looking to hurt people," Trump replied, insisting there were some "great people" among the immigrant population.
It was the latest example of Trump appearing to waver on his long-held stance he would deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries. His new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN on Sunday that Trump's proposed "deportation force" for the 11 million people in the United States illegally was "to be determined."
Later on Tuesday, at a rally in Austin, Trump appeared to shift his emphasis to dealing with illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the United States. He brought on stage eight mothers whose children were killed by illegal immigrants.
Trump ticked off a series of statistics about crimes committed by some illegal immigrants and vowed that would be stopped under his presidency.
"Not going to happen, folks," he said. "We're not going to let it happen to our country."
Trump, who postponed an immigration speech originally planned for Thursday in Denver, said he would stop some major cities' practice of providing sanctuary for illegal immigrants and stop immigrants from overstaying their visas.
A move by Trump to modify his stance on immigration could help him attract more support among moderate voters in his uphill drive to win the Nov. 8 election.
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Democrat Hillary Clinton expanding her lead over Trump to 12 points among likely voters, with 45 percent support to 33 percent for Trump.
But a change in Trump's position could prove to be dispiriting to some of his strongest supporters. Trump defeated 16 rivals for the Republican presidential nomination and one factor that helped him was being the most hardline candidate on immigration.
"Why would anyone be surprised that Trump has pivoted to becoming the 'amnesty' candidate?" said Republican strategist Rick Tyler, a former spokesman for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a conservative. "When you have no governing philosophy, pivots are par for the course. Guess we won't need Mexico to build that wall."
'FOLLOW THE LAWS'
At his Austin event, attended by thousands who packed a rodeo arena, some were shouting: "Build the wall" long before Trump even showed up, a reference to the New York businessman's oft-stated promise to build a wall along the U.S. with Mexico and make Mexico pay for it.
Some of those attending the event, however, liked that Trump might be offering a more expansive view on immigration.
"I think he's saying the law needs to be looked at," said Barbara Thomas, a Trump supporter from the Austin area. "I think it would be very hard for all of them to be deported. I think the system needs to be fixed. It has some problems."
Immigration politics have long divided American voters. Then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, fought for changes to U.S. immigration laws in 2007 but the effort fizzled in the U.S. Congress. Democratic President Barack Obama's attempts have failed to bear fruit amid partisan gridlock.
Trump insisted in the Hannity appearance he would "follow the law."
"We have very strong laws in this country. And you know Bush, and even Obama, sends people back. Now, we can be more aggressive on that but we want to follow the laws," he said.
His vice presidential running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, said in a CBS News interview that Trump would be "tough but fair" in dealing with illegal immigrants.
"People who have run afoul of the law gotta leave immediately," Pence said. When pressed, he said the details would need to be worked out with Congress.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)