Donald Trump's Deportation Flip-Flop: Why It Could Actually Help Him

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks onstage during a campaign rally in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on August 20. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

When Donald Trump talked blithely about creating a "deportation force" to kick out the country's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, it delighted some of his supporters. But it was never going to happen. The moral cost of pushing families out of the U.S. would be too great, the political cost would be astronomical, and the financial cost would be even more daunting.

The American Action Forum, a conservative group from the pro-immigration wing of the GOP, estimated such a deportation effort would take 20 years, cost $400 billion to $600 billion and displace entire industries, all while shaving 5.7 percent off the U.S. gross domestic product. And that's assuming an orderly, cooperative deportation of around 400,000 people a year rather than a sudden mass sweep or a Syria-like calamity.

On Tuesday, Trump told an audience assembled by Fox News's Sean Hannity that he would have a decision "very soon" on how to handle immigrants without documentation who have been in the country for a while and have no criminal record. At times, he even sounded like his former GOP rival Jeb Bush: "So you have somebody who's been in the country for 20 years, has done a great job and everything else and OK. Do we take him and the family, and her and him or whatever and send them out?"

Based on what Trump's aides are saying, the Republican nominee now seems to believe he should concentrate only on deporting those who are in the United States illegally and have criminal records—a position that is remarkably close to what President Barack Obama has been doing for seven years. Trump acknowledged as much on Monday, and it's perhaps the comic high point of the campaign that the bombastic billionaire is now imitating the policies of a man whom he's called "the worst president" in U.S. history.

If Trump does abandon plans for massive deportation, he's still staked out a radical approach to immigration—including his dubious proposal to build a giant wall along the Mexican border and his insistence, despite all evidence, that Mexico will pay for it. There's also his criticism of birthright citizenship, his very restrictive approach to refugees seeking asylum and his plan to ban immigration from countries beset by terrorism (which was formerly an idea to ban all Muslim would-be immigrants). So if he does abandon his most extreme, quixotic position, he's probably done his campaign some good. It's too early to tell, but he might be able to keep his nationalist supporters happy while appealing to those who found the idea of mass deportations more loathsome than many of his other policies.

More importantly, perhaps we can now have a legitimate, non-racist discussion about immigration (both legal and illegal)—whether current levels of are suppressing wages for American citizens, a position long advocated by Trump's guru on the subject, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, or whether higher immigration is a net boon to the U.S., both culturally and in terms of job creation. As long as Trump seemed intent on his myopic, xenophobic plan, that debate could never occur.

It's no wonder Hillary Clinton's ad makers quickly put out a video on Monday attacking Trump's apparent flip-flop, suggesting no one should believe he's really backing off his deport-them-all stance. They realize Trump may have jettisoned one of the things giving Clinton a solid lead in the race for the White House. The only question now: Can Trump can stick to this new position and defend it?