Why Has Donald Trump Suddenly Gone All Soft On Immigration?

September 8, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Donald Trump launched his presidential bid with a race-baiting, xenophobic bang, suggesting Mexicans are a bunch of women-raping, drug-carrying criminals. But now that the Summer of Trump is turning into fall, it looks like Trump is trying to turn over a new leaf, promising a “a big fat beautiful open door” in his 1,954-mile-long southwestern border wall, agreeing to eat Mexican food with Geraldo Rivera, and winning the praises of the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The softening is nuanced and doesn’t suggest an earnest effort to make-nice with the still-furious Latino community. Rather it portends a long-term campaign strategy in which Trump tries to have it both ways: blow the dog whistle to rile the nativist extremes of the GOP base but temper his rhetoric to reassure more moderate conservatives who don’t see themselves — or want to be seen — as racist.

“It’s clear he’s trying to assuage the mood,” said Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation of the Arts, whose group turned down an invitation to meet with Trump in Manhattan at Trump Tower. “In a way, it’s really whitewashing what he’s done,” Sanchez told TPM last week.

According to political experts, it can also be seen as a signal to Republican voters nervous that their candidate is winning the support of white supremacists that he should be taken more seriously: that he’s not so xenophobic after all, that he’s electable in the general, that he’s thinking about Latino-heavy states later in the electoral calendar.

“Republican voters have been very good at sussing out the electability question of these candidate,” said Princeton University political scientist Ali Valenzuela, pointing to the eventual GOP nominations of Mitt Romney and John McCain over more conservative candidates. “Republican voters are smart and they don’t want to nominate someone who has no chance of winning the big prize, the general. They know as well as me or you, that this kind of rhetoric, this kind of attack — even if they agree with it — it’s not going to win the moderate vote.”

The tone Trump took on immigration at a press conference last Thursday was markedly different than that at his campaign announcement.

“I want people to come in to our country legally. I want to have a big fat beautiful open door. I want people of great talent to come in for Silicon Valley. I want engineers. I want physicists,” he said, with his trademark gusto. “We want people of great talent to be in the United States work here and ultimately to become a citizen.”

Yes, he wants to “enforce the law” when it comes to people here illegally, but for talented, well-educated strivers he still wants America to be a beacon.

“[Immigration] also can be a very positive subject, because I believe so strongly in immigration and we have to stop illegal immigration and we have to look forward to great immigration done in a legal manner,” he said.

According to Rodolfo Espino, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Politics & Global Studies, such comments speak to what he called the “Ellis Island notion” of immigration.

“If you’re hardworking, you come to America and you make this a better country. What people don’t want is people who don’t speak English, who are non-Christian,” Espino said. “The politics of immigration are complicated in that way that you can say I’m pro-legal immigration.”

Such a framing is not so different than what many other mainstream Republicans have been saying all along when it comes to immigration reform and dealing with the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.

In recent days Javier Palomarez, the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has spoken positively about Trump after their private meeting.

“The Donald Trump that I met today and that I sat with today was very different from the Donald Trump that I saw in the media,” he said on MSNBC. “He was a gentleman. He listened much more than he spoke. He asked questions.”

It’s worth noting, Espino said, that the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — where Trump will participate in a question and answer forum Oct. 8 — is perceived as a right-leaning group.

“Of course you’re never going to have organizations like MALDEF be willing to court someone like Trump,” he said, referring to the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. “But you do have an opportunity to appeal to certain conservative Latinos, which can make a difference as you head further into primary calendar and head into certain states.”

Likewise, Geraldo Rivera– on whose radio show Trump appeared Wednesday — is known for some conservative viewpoints, even as he has been critical of Trump’s immigration policies. While he continued to press Trump on his immigration platform, he told Trump he believed he was being “demonized” and suggested Trump join him for dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

“These kinds of messengers are good for him and important because lots of these voters take this sort of endorsements and don’t do their homework,” Valenzuela said. “They don’t follow closely, but they see an Hispanic Chamber of Commerce member saying that Trump is someone you can entertain voting for.”

But Trump’s critics point out that this recent pivot is not the end of his dog whistle politics. On the Rivera interview, Trump continued his assertion that “gangs in Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis and Ferguson are illegal immigrants.” And Trump has yet to apologize for any of his previous remarks, nor has he moderated any of his policy stances, which involve ending birthright citizenship and deporting 11 million people.

Furthermore, those sort of dog whistles are hard to forget, political scientists say.

“The kind of voter that appreciates the dog whistle, that appreciates bigoted, or bigoted-adjacent remark, they’re not seeing the relatively subtle moves to soften his image,” Valenzuela said. “They’re not seeing those as overturning the prior comments or actions by Trump.”

The trend is also prompting some criticism for those in the Hispanic community willing to play along with Trump.

According to Sanchez of the National Hispanic Foundation of the Arts, when Trump’s lawyers reached out to his group, they insisted they meet at Trump Tower rather than their D.C. headquarters or some neutral territory.

“The optics showed a kind of concession,” Sanchez said. “For organizations to allow themselves to facilitate that kind of opportunity is a big mistake.”

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