For all that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has talked about immigration, the specifics of his deportation policies can be difficult to parse. The biggest question: Trump has said he wants to “round up” and deport all undocumented immigrants, but how, exactly, would he do it, if at all?
Trump will lay out more details of his immigration policies soon, according to campaign officials. But in response to The Huffington Post’s questions, a campaign aide offered one of the most detailed explanations to date about what a Trump administration immigration enforcement regime might look like.
The aide argued that Trump has never actually advocated for the type of large-scale raids that come to mind when people hear the words “mass deportation” or remarks about “rounding up” undocumented immigrants.
“He’s said many times that he’s not talking about mass deportation,” said the aide, who asked not to be identified to speak about the issue in depth. “What he’s talking about is enforcing the law of the land. If you come into contact with a federal immigration officer in the course of the lawful exercise of their duties, that immigration officer is legally and duty-bound to carry out a legal proceeding and issue a notice to appear.
“It’s never been the case that to effectuate a sound, lawful immigration system that you would need to rely exclusively on immigration raids, or whatever it may be,” the aide said.
Trump’s first priority, the aide said, would instead be deporting criminals, gang members and security threats. Trump has often referenced them as “the bad ones.” On Monday, he promised to deport this group “so fast your head will spin.”
As for the rest, Trump has said, “we’re going to go through the process like they are now, perhaps with a lot more energy, and we’re going to do it only through the system of laws.”
A position that emphasizes deporting the bad apples of the undocumented population while figuring out a way to sift through those remaining, is both broad and, generally speaking, what the Obama administration already does. The administration says it focuses removal efforts on criminals, recent border-crossers and national security threats.
So are Trump and Obama now in the same place? Not quite.
The differences are visible in what priorities are applied to the sifting and the level of resources brought to bear. Trump seems to acknowledge the need for prioritization by saying he would focus swift deportation efforts on a specific subset of undocumented immigrants. As for resources, his campaign aide said he would push for more immigration judges and enforcement agents, but it’s unlikely that Congress would fund the number needed for immediate deportation of all undocumented immigrants.
Where Obama and Trump also differ is that Trump would eliminate the Obama policies that create what the campaign aide said is an “immunity blanket for ... 99 percent of the illegal immigrant population.” That includes the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that allows undocumented young people who came to the U.S. to stay on a temporary basis, but also lesser-known policy memos that discourage officers from pursuing deportation against some individuals who they encounter and deem low priority.
Trump’s aide indicated that he would have a broader definition of high priority than either Obama or Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, noting that some people who have been released because they committed low-priority offenses have gone on to commit serious crimes.
The idea would be to allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and border patrol agents to do their jobs “free from political interference and bureaucratic interference,” the aide said.
Undocumented immigrants would be detained during deportation proceedings if they were considered dangerous, a flight risk, or had been recently apprehended at the border, the aide said. This is not all that different from current policy, although Trump has proposed tougher treatment of the women and children apprehended at the southern border, most of them claiming fear of deportation to their native countries. He has said they would face mandatory detention and expedited deportation.
The undocumented immigrants who do not fit that category would not be detained, Trump said on Monday. “You don’t have to put them in a detention center,” he told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly when asked if he would take people from their homes and put them in facilities.
Comments like these have led to accusations that Trump is softening the hard-line stance that won him the Republican primary. For example, Trump had proposed “rounding ‘em up” ― which certainly suggests some form of holding center prior to deportation proceedings ― and even tweeted what seemed to be approval of the concept of mass deportations (just not the phrasing).
Trump’s campaign aide said that O’Reilly’s question about putting all undocumented immigrants in detention centers was a hypothetical based on something Trump has never proposed. The aide argued that whether Trump’s policies amount to “mass deportation” or “rounding up” undocumented immigrants is a matter of opinion.
“You and others, and people in the advocacy community, may use the term ‘round up’ or ‘mass deportation’ to describe removing any large number of people under any circumstance,” the aide said.
In the end, this has always been the difficulty with interpreting Trump’s immigration comments ― they sound different to different people because they’re vague. Anti-amnesty supporters applauded him for saying undocumented immigrants “have to go,” but Trump has also carved out wiggle room by suggesting he won’t deport everyone immediately. He did as much on Tuesday, telling Fox News’ Sean Hannity that “there certainly can be a softening” in his position while, moments later, stressing, “We are going to follow the laws of this country.”
And, of course, everything could change the next time Trump speaks on the topic. He has a penchant for improvising policy.