What is Trump's actual position on illegal immigration?

Story highlights

  • Trump calls for merit based system for undocumented immigrants in U.S.
  • Trump inconsistencies on immigration draw conservative ire

(CNN)Donald Trump rose to the top of the GOP presidential field by harnessing the anger of many conservative Republicans about illegal immigration. But he has softened his tone in recent days -- going so far as to say that he would favor a "merit-based system" for undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

After weeks of criticism over the harsh tone of his presidential campaign announcement -- where he claimed that Mexican immigrants were bringing drugs and crime to the U.S., and calling some of them rapists -- Trump seems to be edging toward a more moderate position.
    On the campaign trail in recent weeks, Trump has shed little light on his actual plans for dealing with illegal immigration beyond generalizations that have often seemed far-fetched. Initially, he said he would build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. On Thursday, during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, he seemed to reverse course under questioning by CNN's Dana Bash.
    "In certain sections, you have to have a wall," he said.
    His position on immigration -- which has been a huge part of his appeal among conservative voters nationally -- grew even more muddled Friday when he highlighted his support for a "merit-based system" for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
    Though he did not explain the mechanics of the system in any detail, it sounded similar to the calls by some moderate Republicans for a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, which has been an anathema to hardline conservatives.
    On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday, Trump insisted that he would secure the border first and "take the bad ones" -- referring to undocumented immigrants -- "and get them the hell out."
    "We give them back to Mexico or we make sure they stay where they came from," Trump told the show's hosts, noting that he would "secure the border" first. But, he added in regard to the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, "I'm a very big believer in (the) merit system."
    "I have to tell you, some of these people have been here; they've done a good job; in some cases sadly they've been living under the shadows," Trump said in his telephone interview. "We have to do something, so whether it's merit, or whether it's whatever, but -- I'm a believer in the merit system. Somebody's been outstanding, we (ought to) try to work something out."
    It wasn't the first time that Trump had raised the possibility of a kinder, gentler immigration policy. In fact, a number of conservative writers have noted the irony of his appeal to the right flank of the Republican Party given his moderate statements on immigration, as well as abortion, over the years.
    In a newsletter to his readers earlier this month entitled "Trump fans, it's time for an intervention," National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg noted that Trump told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in 2011 that he favored a system where the U.S. determined which undocumented immigrants could stay in this country on a "case by case" basis. The Glenn Beck program has also cited that interview as a reason conservatives should not support the real estate magnate.
    In the 2011 interview, O'Reilly had asked Trump what he would do with "15 million illegal aliens already in the United States."
    "You know, it's hard to generalize, but you're going to have to look at the individual people, see how they've done, see how productive they've been, see what their references are, and then make a decision," Trump said.
    Protestors interrupt Trump during immigration comments
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      Protestors interrupt Trump during immigration comments


    Protestors interrupt Trump during immigration comments 02:25
    O'Reilly pointed out that kind of system would take a long time and require a great deal of manpower.
    "A long time," Trump responded, "but you know, you have some great productive people that came in."
    Trump's harsh vitriol about immigrants from Mexico in his announcement speech also seems ironic, given his criticisms of what he cast as the "mean-spirited" tone of 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney on the topic.
    Trump told the conservative outlet Newsmax in 2012 that Romney harmed the Republican Party's image with his hard line views on illegal immigration.
    "He had a crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal," Trump told Newsmax. "It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote." Trump added that the GOP should develop better policies "with respect to people wanting to be wonderful, productive citizens of this country."
    Trump's visit to the U.S.-Mexico border this week brought a fresh round of scrutiny to his positions -- and left more questions than answers. He was once again effusive about his love for Mexico and said he thought he would win "win the Hispanic vote," because "thousands and thousands of Hispanics have worked for me."
    When pressed by a reporter about what he would do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., he dodged the question: "The first thing we have to do is secure our borders and after that we're going to have plenty of time to talk about it."
    That dodge once again caught the attention of the conservative blogosphere. The headline on the blog of the conservative Weekly Standard illustrated the perils for Trump on the issue: "Trump suggests he may be open to amnesty."