NEW YORK — Donald Trump, who captured the Republican nomination with a hard-line approach to immigration, faced anger and disgust from across the political spectrum Thursday after he indicated he might retreat from his vow to deport all 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
In a town hall-style appearance broadcast on Fox News on Wednesday night, Trump appeared to suggest that he would now be open to some kind of path to legal status, if not citizenship, for unauthorized immigrants.
“No citizenship,” Trump said. “They’ll pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes,” he added. “There’s no amnesty, but we will work with them,” he said at another point.
Trump said that while his supporters wanted to “get the bad ones out,” he also had heard from voters who took a less absolutist view. “They’ve said, ‘Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person that has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and the family out, it’s so tough, Mr. Trump,’” he said.
Several times, Trump turned to the audience in what he told his host, Sean Hannity, was “like a poll.”
“Number one, we’ll say throw out. Number two, we work with them,” Trump said.
Liberals who support an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws expressed horror at the spectacle.
“It’s not a small issue. It’s 11 million people,” said Angie Kelley, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “He’s reducing a serious policy discussion to a pep-rally vote and cheering the loudest for your team. It’s insulting. It’s dangerous. It’s unprecedented.”
But for conservatives who have vocally opposed comprehensive immigration reform, and who had admired Trump’s calls for a border wall and mass deportations, Trump’s words sounded dismayingly similar to those of former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, whom Trump drove from the Republican primaries in large part by deriding him as weak on immigration.
In an interview with Rita Cosby of WABC radio, Bush called Trump’s shifting speech “abhorrent.”
“I don’t know what to believe about a guy who doesn’t believe in things,” Bush said.
Trump’s shifting locutions also prompted some conservatives to compare Trump to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” in the Senate who led a failed attempt at immigration reform in 2013.
“For me, the two phrases that were the last straws were, ‘It’s not amnesty,’ and ‘back taxes,’” said Mark Krikorian, of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. “Those things are terms of art for the Gang of Eight-type crowd.”
“Betraying his base and making clear that, a year after he launched his campaign, he still doesn’t know really what he wants to do on immigration, is really the last straw, it seems to me,” Krikorian added of Trump.
For Trump, the new, moderate talk on immigration could help convince some on-the-fence voters, particularly whites, that he has more compassion for Hispanics and other minorities than his previous, hard-line positions would suggest.
But whatever the possible gains, Trump risks offending millions of conservatives. He made himself a hero of the Republican right wing in large part by casting himself as more hard-core on the immigration issue than any of his rivals. He vowed to build a wall, called immigrants “rapists,” promised to establish a “deportation force” and said every immigrant in the country illegally would be forced out.
That fired up a part of the Republican base that had been frustrated with the party leadership in Washington, who they saw as too willing to compromise with President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats.
Trump’s most devoted supporters have ignored other inconsistencies. But if they perceive him to be backing away from what drew them to him in the first place, they could stay home.
As aghast conservatives publicly warned Trump against any policy retreat — “Once you become an immigration enforcement hard-liner, there’s no going back!” the hard-line activist William Gheen told The Washington Times — Trump’s aides insisted that his policy proposals remained unchanged.
A spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, said on CNN that Trump was merely changing the “words” he was using, not the proposals themselves.
Democrats and immigration-overhaul advocates made the same point.
“Details matter, and we have seen no actual policy shift to date,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, the immigration-reform group backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Trump has frequently dangled vague phrases suggestive of policy shifts, only to accuse the news media of having wrongly interpreted them.
Still, Trump has been softening his language on immigration for several days, as he courts an electorate far less receptive to his harsher proposals, like for a wall along the Mexican border, than he faced in the primaries.