Donald Trump has vowed anew to deport millions of undocumented people and to build a wall on the border with Mexico, defying expectations that he would soften his stance on immigration.
The Republican presidential candidate doubled down on his hardline stance in a speech on Wednesday night which delighted core supporters and dismayed his few remaining Latino allies who had expected a tack towards moderation.
Speaking hours after a lightning visit to Mexico, Trump told a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, he was sticking with his plan for a “deportation force” to intercept illegal border crossers and hunt down criminal “illegal aliens” already in the US.
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“We are going to take our country back,” he said, repeating a mantra from the primary campaign.
Speaking largely from a teleprompter, he also reiterated his vow to make Mexico pay for a 2,000-mile wall which, he said, would bristle with sensors, towers and guards. “We will build a great wall along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall, 100%. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.”
Trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls with just 69 days to the election, Trump and campaign aides had recently fuelled expectations of a “softening” of immigration policy, prompting speculation about a flip-flop.
Instead the speech, which his campaign billed as a major policy address, represented an abrupt reversion to an aggressive tone just hours after an unfamiliar conciliatory timbre in Mexico City, where Trump met President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The GOP nominee roused the crowd in Phoenix with grisly details about murders committed by undocumented immigrants. He brought on stage “angel moms” whose children were killed.
He spoke of cancelling an Obama administration programme that gives work permits to about 800,000 young immigrants who came to the US as children – a stance likely to slam shut any chance of Latino outreach.
Anybody who entered the US illegally would be subject to deportation and there should be detainers for immigrants who committed any crime, not just felonies, he said. “There will be no amnesty.”
Trump also promised ideological tests for would-be visa applicants, a “sunset” on visa laws requiring Congress to rewrite them every few years and a ban on taxpayer funding for cities that don’t deport undocumented immigrants.
The rhetoric trampled over the hopes of Trump’s dwindling band of conservative Latino supporters. “This is how I feel: disappointed and misled,” tweeted Alfonso Aguilar, head of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. Jacob Monty, a member of Trump’s National Hispanic advisory council, resigned, Politico reported.
The rightwing columnist Ann Coulter, in contrast, exulted. “Wow. This doesn’t sound like “softening.” GO, TRUMP!!!” she tweeted.
Trump did however imply most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants would remain untouched while his putative administration focused on deporting 2 million with alleged criminal records. “We will begin moving them out, day one. My first hour in office, those people are gone.”
The ambiguity over the fate of non-criminal undocumented immigrants marked a tacit retreat from Trump’s earlier vows to swiftly deport all 11 million people. The lack of clarity allowed supporters and critics to fill in the blanks with their own wishes and anxieties.
Trump’s policy could in theory yet resemble that of Obama, who has deported millions, and GOP rivals such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, whom Trump accused of supporting de facto amnesty.
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The speech capped a whirlwind day of political theatre in which Trump, after a year of denigrating Mexican immigrants as rapists, murderers and drug dealers, met President Peña Nieto in Mexico City, triggering a backlash from Mexicans who denounced the New York businessman as a tyrant, and worse.
Trump emerged from the private meeting at Los Pinos, the presidential residence, heaping praise on Mexican immigrants. “They are amazing people, amazing people … Mexicans are just beyond reproach. Spectacular, spectacular and hardworking people.”
He said the hour-long meeting with Peña Nieto was “substantive” and “excellent” but did not touch on his pledge to force Mexico to pay for the wall. “We’re saving that discussion for a later date.”
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Mexico’s president however said he did broach the topic and told Trump Mexico would not pay. In a late evening television interview, an angry-looking Peña Nieto said: “His policy stances could represent a huge threat to Mexico, and I am not prepared to keep my arms crossed and do nothing.
“That risk, that threat, must be confronted. I told him that is not the way to build a mutually beneficial relationship for both nations.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, sidelined by another day of Trump drama, seized on the discrepancy: “It turns out Trump didn’t just choke, he got beat in the room and lied about it.”
The unexpected visit – Trump’s first meeting with a head of state since he became a candidate – yielded presidential optics in the form of a podium and marble backdrop in an international setting. Speaking beneath a Mexican flag the casino owner-turned reality TV star sounded restrained and diplomatic.
That evaporated when he bounded onto the podium in Phoenix, 200 miles north of the border, and seemed energised by the crowd, even though the cavernous convention centre was half-empty.
#Trump takes the stage: ‘what a crowd.. So many people.’ pic.twitter.com/3YzsUNv9X1
“There is only one core issue in the immigration debate and that is the wellbeing of the American people. Nothing even comes a close second. Our greatest compassion must be for our American citizens.” The audience cheered and chanted “USA”.
Maricopa county sheriff Joe Arpaio, a controversial hunter of suspected undocumented people, New York’s former mayor Rudy Giuliani and Trump’s running mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, warmed up the crowd before Trump arrived.
Supporters hailed his cross-border foray as evidence he could negotiate with foreign leaders and secure US interests. George Buchanan, 71, a retired flooring installer, said it also showed courage. “It’s dangerous. You’ve got those Mexican people over there, drug lords. The drug lords don’t want him to build the wall.”
Some in the crowd sensed that behind the brash reiteration of mass deportations Trump was in fact edging towards a more moderate, viable, policy. “I think he’s loosening up, becoming more realistic,” said Nancy Lewis, 56, a retired law enforcer. “And I’m OK with that. I have Hispanic friends.”
Michelle Des Marais, 78, appeared willing to forgive Trump if he did end up retreating. “It’s a hard fight but at least he’s trying.”