Donald Trump breathes fire in immigration speech

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

  • Published
Donald Trump in the crowdImage source, Getty Images

For the past week and a half Donald Trump has been hinting that his hard-line immigration stance may be shifting. He's been floating more balloons than an Arctic weather station. Flashing more signals than a traffic light.

For every indication of softening, however - either from Mr Trump himself or one of his surrogates - there's been a quick retrenchment. Balloons popped and signals quashed.

"There's no different message," Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson said last week. "He's using different words to give that message."

It turns out she was half-right.

When Mr Trump delivered his much-hyped immigration speech on Wednesday night, the message was the same. But so, largely, were the words.

As he did during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July, Mr Trump eschewed calls for moderation and modulation, and instead delivered - no, shouted - the kind of red-meat populist stemwinder that powered him through his successful primary campaign.

Reach out to minority voters? Nah. Display a more empathetic side to attract moderate Republicans, particularly suburban women? Not happening. Instead, Mr Trump was combative as ever - and the Phoenix crowd loved it.

Once Mr Trump got around to detailing the policy aspects in his "detailed policy address", he led with what, thanks to his surprise visit with President Enrique Pena Nieto, was already the topic of the day.

Media caption,

Trump ducks confrontation in Mexico

The Mexican border wall - that "impenetrable, physical , tall, powerful , beautiful" barrier, in Mr Trump's words - would be built, he promised.

Just hours earlier a much more subdued Trump had said he spoke about the border wall in a private meeting with the Mexican president, but the subject of financing hadn't been discussed. "That'll be for a later date," he said.

This had set off a firestorm of debate over why, exactly, the Republican candidate had seemingly backed down from what had been one of the signature aspects of his candidacy. Was this the Great Pivot to the political middle in action?

After he had put thousand miles between him and Mr Nieto, however, Mr Trump gave his answer.

"Mexico will pay for the wall," he said. "A hundred percent. They don't know it yet, but they're going to pay for it."

More on Trump and immigration

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A version of Trump's wall created by artists David Gleeson and Mary Mihelic next to the US-Mexican border in California

Then it was off to the races. He painted a dark picture of a nation overrun by undocumented immigrants - even though numbers, particularly from Mexico, have declined in recent years.

Mr Trump ticked off a laundry list of his hard-line immigration proposals, many of which he had already either discussed or detailed on his website.

Every undocumented immigrant currently in the US will be subject to deportation. There will be no pathway to citizenship or even legal status for them unless they leave the country and get in line with everyone else who wants to enter the US, subject to the normal immigration procedures.

Oh, and those entry procedures will be changing. Immigration levels will be reduced. Immigrants will be chosen on "merit, skill, and proficiency". They will be subject to "ideological certification" to ensure they love American values and people.

"We take anybody," Mr Trump said about the current system. "Come on in, anybody. Just come on in. Not anymore."

Anyone without legal papers who is arrested "for any reason" will be put on a fast-track for removal, regardless of whether the arrest is valid or not.

Media caption,

Can Trump win with white voters only?

Those who evade deportation from the "special deportation task force" he would create to focus on criminals, gang members, those on public welfare and anyone overstaying their visas (an estimated 500,000 in 2015 alone) will find life in the US most unwelcoming. It was shades of 2012 Republican Mitt Romney's self-deportation proposals - which were harshly criticised by Hispanic activists at the time.

Mr Trump also fleshed out his "extreme vetting" plans for immigrants from regions and countries that could pose a security risk to the US. He named Syria and Libya, in particular, as suspect states. Refugees who don't pass muster will be resettled in "safe zones" near their homes that will be paid for by Persian Gulf states.

Reaction to Mr Trump's speech was sharply divided along the already formed battle lines. Those who had been in his hard-line immigration camp from the get-go - some of whom were confused by his recent hints of softening - were firmly back in the fold.

"I hear Churchill had a nice turn of phrase, but Trump's immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given," quipped conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

David Duke, the former Klu Klux Klan leader turned would-be politician, raved.

"Excellent speech by Donald Trump tonight," he tweeted. "Deport criminal aliens, end catch-and-release, enforce immigration laws and America First."

Meanwhile Rick Wilson, a conservative political consultant who has embraced Evan McMullin's third-party presidential bid, called Mr Trump's speech "hideous word vomit".

"It's tuned only to his white nationalist base," he tweeted. "They're giggling and drooling over themselves."

Isaac Chotiner of Slate said that the speech should put to bed any talk of a Trump pivot.

"After Wednesday night's loud, angry and hateful speech on immigration, it should be impossible to view him as anything but a demagogue," he writes.

So, if the pivot is an illusion - a two-week mirage crafted from wishful thinking and mixed messages from the Trump campaign - what does Wednesday's Phoenix speech tell us about the state of the 2016 presidential race?

In the end, it seems, the Trump team has decided that the talk of expanding Mr Trump's appeal, particularly to Hispanic voters, can't come at the cost of alienating his base. The kind words the candidate offers - calling Mexican-Americans "amazing", "spectacular and "beyond reproach", as he did in Mexico City - likely won't change a year's worth of rhetoric that has fostered high levels of distrust in immigrant communities.

Media caption,

A look back at some of the things Donald Trump has said about Mexicans

Already, according to Politico, several members of Mr Trump's "National Hispanic Advisory Council" are considering pulling their support.

"We thought we were moving in the right direction," said Alfonso Aguilar of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "We're disappointed. We feel misled."

Instead of outreach Mr Trump is going to preach to his choir and hope they will turn out in record numbers, sweeping him to victory.

"We are going to take our country back, folks," Mr Trump said toward the end of his speech. "This is a movement."

And that's how the Republican nominee views this presidential race. It's more than just a campaign, it's something bigger - a force sweeping the country that cannot be defined by standard political metrics or guided by traditional strategies.

Such faith carried him through the Republican primaries when no one thought he would prevail. Now he seems determined to play this hand all the way through November, come hell or high water.