“They got brought here at a very young age. They’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Which political leader made these compassionate remarks about the “dreamers” – the roughly 1.8 million children who were brought to this country illegally by their parents and know no other home than the United States?
President Barack Obama? Hillary Clinton?
No, it was Donald Trump.
Trump told Time magazine during his “Person of the Year” interview that while he was not backing off his pledge to rescind Obama’s executive amnesty, when it comes to the dreamers, “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.”
Trump’s latest comments have dismayed immigration hard-liners, who see the president-elect softening his position. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, blasted Trump, declaring “somebody’s heart got a little softer than it was before the election.”
Actually, for those who were paying attention, Trump’s heart always has been soft on immigration – not just for dreamers but for most illegal immigrants. During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly said that he wanted to find a way for the vast majority of illegal immigrants (the “good ones,” as he called them) to get right with the law and secure legal status. The mainstream media ignored this, because this did not fit with their narrative of a heartless Trump who wanted to break up families and send all 11 million illegal immigrants permanently back to their countries of origin.
Don’t believe me? Let’s review what Trump actually said.
Asked in an interview by CNN’s Dana Bash about the dreamers, he said: “We’re going to do something. … I would get people out and then have an expedited way of getting them back into the country so they can be legal. … A lot of these people are helping us … and sometimes it’s jobs a citizen of the United States doesn’t even want to do. … I want to move them out. I want to move them back in and let them be legal.”
What Trump is describing is a policy called “touchback.” Championed by then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, in 2007, the idea is that illegal immigrants must return briefly to their countries of origin, where they can apply for a special visa that would allow them to re-enter the United States in an expedited manner and work here indefinitely.
The policy was endorsed by none other than The New York Times, which declared in a 2007 editorial that “it’s not ideal, but if a touchback provision is manageable and reassures people that illegal immigrants are indeed going to the back of the line, then it will be defensible.”
If Trump implements a proposal like this, he won’t need a “deportation force.” The vast majority of illegal immigrants would voluntarily cooperate. A 2007 Los Angeles Times poll of illegal immigrants found that 63 percent would leave voluntarily if they were promised a chance to return, and 85 percent would do so if they were promised a path to citizenship. No need for the left’s imagined jackbooted thugs or Hillary Clinton’s revolting allusion to “boxcars.”
Trump is not likely to pursue touchback legislation in Congress anytime soon. He knows he needs to secure the border first before he can do anything to settle the status of those here illegally. As he explained in August: “That discussion can take place only in an atmosphere in which illegal immigration is a memory of the past, no longer with us, allowing us to weigh the different options available based on the new circumstances at the time.”
Since Democrats are unlikely to approve border security measures without amnesty, Trump will have to focus at the outset on vigorously enforcing current immigration laws and use existing authorities to build a wall, deport criminal immigrants and crack down on sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate. Only when the “bad ones” are gone and the border is secured can he turn to resolving the status of the “good ones.”
Marc A. Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush. He wrote this for The Washington Post.