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Sorry, Donald: Here’s Why the Immigration Discussion Should Keep Focusing on the 11 Million

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Donald Trump recently complained that “all the media wants to talk about is the 11 million…” Sorry, Donald. You may want the discussion to focus on the relevance of a 14th century wall to a 21st century challenge; or on your repeated, if vague, use of the word “strong;” or even on how you intend to undermine the 14th Amendment to take citizenship away from kids born in this country. But for most of us, the heart of the immigration debate comes down to this: what are we as a society going to do about the fact that 11 million undocumented immigrants are deeply rooted in America.

With a speech from the candidate scheduled for this Wednesday in Arizona, here are three key points to bear in mind as Trump gears up to blow some more smoke at the American people:

1. Trump and his campaign are struggling so mightily on immigration because they know the hardline positions he has staked out for the 11 million are outside of the mainstream.

Any rhetorical “softening” from Trump (which was subsequently followed by a rhetorical “hardening”) stems from the fact that the vast majority of Americans – including a slight majority of Republicans – oppose his mass deportation stance. Gallup polling released in July 2016found that a whopping 84% of Americans (91% of Democrats, 85% of Independents, and 76% of Republicans) support “allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally the chance to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.” When Gallup asked about deporting all undocumented immigrants living in the U.S, two-thirds opposed the idea. A range of other pollsters, such as PRRI and Pew Research, have consistently found similar results – strong backing for citizenship and legalization instead of deportation. In fact, in 18 of the 20 states where 2016 Republican primary exit polls asked the question, GOP primary voters supported offering undocumented immigrants “a chance to apply for legal status” instead of deportation by an average margin of 53%-42%.

Let’s be clear: Trump is hoping to win back pro-legalization Republicans who don’t support him currently because they believe he is a racist. It does not stem from any concern about Latino and immigrant voters. His fate is already sealed with those voters. Experts estimate that the typical GOP nominee requires Latino support in the mid-40s; Trump is currently polling in the teens.

2. Trump’s contortions are not about making a real change in policy regarding the 11 million; they’re about trying to take away the stench of the term “mass deportation.”

Trump is trying to walk a rhetorical tightrope in hopes of maintaining support from nativists while attracting new support from wavering white swing voters. His campaign knows that terms like “deportation force” and “mass deportation” don’t help. What his campaign is learning, however, is that squaring this circle is impossible. No matter what language you use, pleasing Steve King and Ann Coulter on the one hand while appealing to a wider swath of the electorate on the other is just not going to happen. There is simply no middle ground there.

As Frank Sharry saidlast week, “After 15 months of racist insults, Trump is deservedly on track for a historic low performance with [Latino and immigrant] voters. Instead, his new campaign team wants to shift the rhetoric – not the policy – in hopes of fooling more moderate GOP voters into believing he is not the racist that has been on display since day one of his campaign … But the underlying deportation-focused policy doesn’t seem to be evolving alongside the rhetorical tweaks. That’s because Trump is inextricably tied to his white nationalist base of support – his overt nativism is the beating heart of his campaign, and it’s our prediction that he will never cut the anti-immigrant diehards loose. As a result, look for continued attempts from Trump and his flailing campaign to walk a rhetorical tightrope that tries to maintain support from his nativist base while clumsily attempting to sound mainstream.”

Good luck with that, Team Trump.

3. The solution on immigration is well-known –  a legislative fix centered on addressing the status of the 11 million. We don’t expect anything that looks like a solution from Trump on Wednesday.

In Phoenix this Wednesday, Trump is supposed to unveil a detailed immigration policy plan.

We know what real reform looks like. It has three components, with the heart of the reform being a humane and practical solution for the 11 million undocumented immigrants settled in America: 1) provide the vast majority of undocumented immigrants with the opportunity to apply and get approved for legal status here in the United States, with the ability to eventually gain full U.S. citizenship; 2) improve the legal immigration system so that, within its limits and priorities, it is more responsive to the imperatives of family unity and shared economic prosperity; and 3) focus enforcement enhancements where they works best: especially on employers, hiring practices, and labor rights, so that legal hiring becomes the norm and exploitation becomes the exception. Such a comprehensive approach has been approved by the U.S. Senate twice in the past 10 years but in the end was blocked by Republicans in the House. What this affirms, however, is that the only way to fix our outdated immigration system is through an act of Congress – a change in law – and one that combines these three elements simultaneously so that we modernize and make workable our nation’s immigration system.

We do not expect Trump to propose anything close to real reform. Instead, if Trump actually gives a policy speech, we expect either a warmed over approach to mass deportation – without the unpopular phrases of “mass deportation” carried out by a “deportation force” – or a move towards the “attrition through enforcement” or “self-deportation” stance favored by the likes of Mitt Romney in 2012, Senator Jeff Sessions today, and its architect Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. The former, which has been Trump’s stance for the past 15 months, dictates that all will leave as soon as they can be rounded up. The latter, which was the basis of the odious Arizona anti-immigrant law enacted in 2010, dictates that most can be forced out by making life so miserable that they pick up and leave before they are picked up by the government. Mass deportation is cruel and impractical. Self-deportation is cruel and impractical but has a happy face slapped on the packaging.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The solution to our dysfunctional immigration system has been clear for more than a decade: pass legislation that combines the legalization of the current undocumented population with flexible legal immigration channels for those coming in the future and focused, targeted enforcement at the border and the workplace. The problem is that Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked such a solution. Then Donald Trump comes along and lurches even further to the right, only to find that what worked in a multi-candidate Republican primary backfires in the general election. Welcome to our world, Mr. Trump. No rhetorical flourishes or hedging is going to solve this challenge. Only a keen appreciation of smart policy-making as well as for our identity as both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws will do the job. Unfortunately, you have displayed an appreciation for neither of these, which is why we are expecting more of the same from you on Wednesday.”

For more on the policy behind real immigration reform, see AILA’s new backgrounder.