Donald Trump's Campaign Sends Mixed Signals on Immigration Plan

Team’s new manager suggests stance may soften; Democrats and some Republicans see no change

Donald Trump’s campaign suggested Sunday that the Republican presidential candidate is prepared to soften his stance on immigration, though the signal was ambiguous.

Mr. Trump has made a tough stand on immigration a signature issue of his campaign, pledging among other things to create a “deportation force” to rapidly remove some of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

On Sunday, his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, dialed back on that pledge, suggesting the deportation force might not be set up after all. Asked on CNN if Mr. Trump would mobilize this deportation force in the White House, Ms. Conway responded: “To be determined.”

She added: “What he supports is to ensure that we respect the law. He will lay out the specifics of that plan.”

Others in the campaign, though, suggested there would be no backtracking on Mr. Trump’s proposals to significantly tighten Mr. Trump tried this past week to reach out to minority groups, in part by holding a meeting on Saturday with his Hispanic Advisory Council at Trump Tower in New York. Mr. Trump has angered many Hispanic leaders during the campaign, due to his comments about Hispanic immigrants being “rapists” and his plan to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

The meeting produced a tangle of reports that indicated Mr. Trump told the gathering that he was open to changing his view. A Republican National Committee representative at the Saturday session said Mr. Trump gave no indication he would support legalization for some undocumented residents.

A Trump spokesman, Steven Cheung, said the candidate’s immigration position hasn’t changed. “Mr. Trump said nothing today that he hasn’t said many times before, including in his convention speech—enforce our immigration laws, uphold the Constitution, and be fair and humane while putting American workers first,” he said in a statement.

John Podesta, chairman of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said the Trump position doesn’t appear to have changed, and added that the GOP nominee’s positions add up to a policy that could hurt many families. “We believe the RNC official in the room, the campaign’s statement after the meeting and the candidate himself that Donald Trump’s immigration plan remains the same as it’s always been: tear apart families and deport 16 million people from the United States,” Mr. Podesta said in a statement.

Any retreat on immigration policies, which have been a signature issue for Mr. Trump, could be politically risky.

On the one hand, GOP leaders have urged the campaign to soften its rhetoric in an attempt to improve Mr. Trump’s poor standing with the rapidly growing universe of Hispanic voters, who will make up an estimated 12% of eligible voters this year.

But Mr. Trump’s fervent backers are counting on a continued tough line on immigration. At his rallies, they frequently break into chants of “build the wall” to underscore his promise to build a wall to keep immigrants from Mexico and Central America out of the U.S. They may grant Mr. Trump some leeway, given that his longstanding stance as a fighter against illegal immigration, but also could be upset with any move to cater to other voters by softening the message.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, a key Trump adviser, was asked on Sunday whether the candidate still planned to quickly deport the 11 million people if he won the White House.

The Alabama Republican, speaking on CBS, was noncommittal. “What I’m certain about is that he did not make a firm commitment yesterday, or the meeting the other day, about what he will do with that,” the senator said. “But he did listen, and he’s talking about it.”

Mr. Sessions emphasized that Mr. Trump isn’t backing off his plan for “extreme vetting,” or ideological assessments, for those coming into the U.S.

“The American people clearly support the idea that if you can’t vet somebody from a dangerous area of the globe, they should not be brought into the U.S.,” he said.


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