Aug. 30, 2016 7:00 p.m. ET
It’s anyone’s guess where Donald Trump really stands these days on illegal immigration. Even Donald Trump may not know for certain, which is why the Republican presidential nominee apparently feels compelled to clarify his stance in a speech scheduled for Wednesday.
Given the centrality of immigration to Mr. Trump’s presidential run, this ambiguity is noteworthy. No one puzzled over where Ronald Reagan stood on tax cuts or defense spending 10 weeks before Election Day in 1980. Barack Obama’s health-care ambitions were unwavering and clear to all in August 2008. If you knew nothing else about Mr. Trump’s candidacy this year, it was that he vowed to wall off the southern border and remove every cotton-pickin’ foreign national here illegally. Until the past week or so, that is.
To be accurate, skepticism about Mr. Trump’s sincerity on deportation isn’t new. In February, BuzzFeed reported that the candidate had told the New York Times in an off-the-record interview that his views on expelling illegal immigrants were more flexible than he had let on. Asked about the story, Mr. Trump allowed that “everything’s negotiable” but declined the Times’s offer to consider releasing the interview transcript.
Since then, Mr. Trump’s immigration shift has became more overt. In November he was proposing a “deportation force” to hunt down the undocumented. Last week, however, he said that giving millions of people the boot is impractical and that enforcement should focus on “the bad ones”—which is the Obama administration’s policy. For those who obey the law and contribute to society, Mr. Trump says that no citizenship should be offered and opposes “amnesty as such.” But if they “pay back taxes” he would be willing to “work with them.” Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio ought to sue for plagiarism.
The weekend brought more confusion. Mr. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, told CNN that “there’ll be no path to legalization, no path to citizenship unless people leave the country.” But when Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was asked by Fox News whether her candidate still supported mass deportation, she answered that his approach was “softening.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters who feel betrayed by this evolution instead should take heart. Your candidate hasn’t gone wobbly. He’s gotten wise. Immigration restrictionism is a surefire political loser for the GOP in national elections, and Mr. Trump has finally figured that out. His signature issue propelled him through a crowded primary where pluralities won the day. But most Republicans who vote in the general election don’t take their cues on immigration policy from the talk-radio right. And Mr. Trump’s nasty tone has already cost him support not only among minorities but also among whites.
American views on immigration, including how to handle the large illegal population, are far more moderate than GOP restrictionists like to admit. When President Obama signed an executive action in 2014 that protected millions from deportation, he did so secure in the knowledge that most voters, including most Republican voters, supported his goal of granting legal status to undocumented aliens. The president’s unilateral approach was unpopular, and the courts have found it legally dubious. But in a Pew Research Center survey taken after the immigration order was issued, 70% of all respondents and 53% of Republicans said illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements “should have a way to stay in the country legally.”
Fox News surveys have revealed even stronger GOP support for some form of conditional amnesty. When pollsters asked if the U.S. should “allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check,” 68% of all respondents and 60% of Republican respondents said yes.
Mr. Trump has rejected the big-tent strategy that helped George W. Bush win two presidential terms. He is counting on overwhelming white support instead. But white voters are a declining share of the electorate, and young Republicans aren’t immigration hard-liners. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released in March found that 52% of Republicans overall and 63% of Republicans under 30 supported creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Sixty-five percent of white Americans with a college degree agreed, as did 54% of whites with a high-school education or less. The older white voters who cheered Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiments don’t even represent most of the GOP on immigration, let alone most of the country.
How immigrants affect America’s economy, culture and homeland security are debates that date to the nation’s founding and aren’t in any danger of going away. If we’re lucky, however, Mr. Trump’s candidacy will move us closer to settling the debate over whether anti-immigration is a winning issue for today’s GOP.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).
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