Eight Takeaways From Donald Trump’s Immigration Extravaganza

Donald Trump, Ohio
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Wilmington, Ohio, on September 1. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Donald Trump’s positions on immigration are much like his hair—complicated, gravity-defying and difficult to understand.

When he went to Mexico on Wednesday, the Republican nominee met with President Enrique Peña Nieto and took a mellower tone on immigration than he has in previous statements, such as when he chirped, “Mexico is not our friend.” During a speech later on Wednesday in Phoenix, Trump took a harder line. There were some olive branches tossed, though: Senator Jeff Sessions and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani were there, and they donned hats that read Make Mexico Great Again Also, a nod to a portion of Trump’s latest public stance.

So what to make of this bizarre flurry of policy pronouncements, especially given what seemed like a pivot toward a softer line on immigration just a few weeks ago? If you forget about the day-to-day gyrations in tone, here’s what’s important to remember:

Trump still wants the 11 million immigrants without documentation out of the U.S. All of them are “subject to deportation,” he said. And he is not offering them a path to citizenship, à la Jeb Bush (his stance was: You can stay if you pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, etc.). Trump’s idea is quite the opposite. The only path to citizenship for those without documentation is to leave the country and get on line back home. (There doesn’t even seem to be any loophole that would allow a “touchback” at a U.S. embassy or consulate.)

Trump also called for creating a force within the Department of Homeland Security that would have the power to oust those who are found to be in the U.S. without documentation. He did not say when that force might begin work, but anyone who took comfort in believing that he was pursuing a path to residency or citizenship was totally wrong. On Thursday morning, Trump told Laura Ingraham that he would start looking at the 11 million immigrants without documentation once the deportations of those with criminal records got under way. No wonder a number of pro-Trump Hispanics abandoned the nominee by midday.

He still wants the wall. And it would be a real wall. Trump left no doubt that he intends to build a physical barrier with Mexico should he be elected, and he continues to insist that Mexico will pay for it. (Mexico’s president, meanwhile, is insisting that won’t happen.) There had been some speculation that Trump might ease his stance and move toward a “virtual wall,” but in his Phoenix speech he described a full wall, with guard towers and high-tech tools for preventing tunneling underneath and any attempts to scale the barrier.

He wants more biometrics, more E-Verify. Trump wants to speed up use of biometric entry and exit visas, as well as turning to Congress to expand the use of E-Verify, a program that requires employers to check the citizenship of those who work for them. This is one of the more prominent times when Trump has leaned on employers as part of the immigration problem, instead of just the immigrants themselves.

He wants an ideological test for immigrants. Under President Trump, immigrants would have to take an ideological compatibility test. One of the most interesting/frightening things he said was that there would be a series of tests to determine if an immigrant was ideologically compatible with the U.S. (He cited a belief in “honor killings” of adulterous spouses as an example of something that would be a no-no.) It seems it would be easy enough for a would-be jihadi to fake answers to this test, but Trump didn’t get into that.

He wants the U.S. to pick winners. Trump said he’d put the U.S. in the business of picking and choosing which immigrants would be most likely to succeed and assimilate once chosen to be allowed in the U.S. He didn’t elaborate too much, but it could mean a preference for those with the kinds of special skills covered by H-1B visas, or it could mean leaning toward certain groups (English speakers, for instance). Of course, determining who would succeed in America is not very easy. In the 19th century, few probably would have bet that Eastern European Jews or Japanese immigrants would see their descendants at the top of today’s income chart.

He has dropped the Muslim ban idea, but… Trump reiterated his position that he wouldn’t ban Muslims per se but said he would ban immigration from regions where there’s considerable activity by violent extremists. He cited Libya and Syria. Would that also include, say, France and Egypt? That’s not clear. But it would seem to give Trump broad enough latitude to ban most Muslim immigrants from entering the country.

He even wants to slash legal immigration. Trump didn’t take a stand on birthright citizenship, though in the past he’s questioned the legal norm that being born on U.S. soil makes someone an American. But he did say that our immigration laws should be reviewed regularly and that immigration levels should be returned to historical norms. That would mean a huge reduction from current levels of legal immigration. And he called for revisiting immigration laws on a regular basis.

He has stopped bashing Mexico. The Republican nominee has kept up his kind words about Peña Nieto. Does that mean he won’t revert to form? No one knows, but he seems to have decided that he has found a new formula on immigration that can work: take a bit of a softer tone, keep the same policies and don’t slight Mexico.