NEW YORK — Republican Donald Trump promised on Monday to be ‘‘fair, but firm’’ toward the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, a shift in tone that raised questions on whether he’s backtracking from previous pledges to push for mass deportations.
The billionaire businessman, whose hard-line approach to immigration and fierce rhetoric propelled him to the GOP presidential nomination, insisted that he’s not ‘‘flip-flopping’’ on the divisive issue as he works to broaden his support two and half months to the general election.
Polls show him trailing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in national polls and battleground states.
But in a meeting with Hispanic activists on Saturday, Trump indicated that he was open to considering allowing those who have not committed crimes, beyond their immigration offenses, to obtain some form of legal status — though attendees made clear Trump has yet to make up his mind.
‘‘The impression I got was that the campaign is working on substantive policy to help the undocumented that are here, including some type of status so they would not be deported,’’ said Pastor Mario Bramnick, president of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition, who was in attendance.
Bramnick said he’d left the meeting ‘‘very encouraged’’ and ‘‘hopeful in anticipating the policy and language’’ Trump’s campaign is expected to release in the coming weeks.
Any walk-back would mark a dramatic reversal for Trump, whose tough stand on immigration has been the driving issue of his campaign. During the GOP primary, Trump vowed to use a ‘‘deportation force’’ to round up and deport the millions of people living in the country illegally, a proposal that excited many of his core supporters but alienated Hispanic voters who could be pivotal in key states.
Trump said in an interview with ‘‘Fox & Friends’’ on Monday that he was ‘‘working with a lot of people in the Hispanic community to try and come up with an answer.’’
‘‘We want to come up with a really fair, but firm answer. It has to be very firm. But we want to come up with something fair,’’ he said.
Asked whether Trump’s plan still included a deportation force, his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said Sunday it was ‘‘to be determined.’’
‘‘What Donald Trump says is we need a fair and effective way to deal with the 11 million who are here, who live among us,’’ Conway said on CNBC on Monday. At the same time, she said, he is committed to ‘‘protecting American jobs and American workers and also securing our borders, obviously.’’