Donald Trump's immigration policy: Then and now

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump is preparing to wade back into the heated immigration debate
  • It is unknown whether he will abandon the promises he made on illegal immigration

Austin, Texas (CNN)Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by promising to build a "great, great wall" on the US southern border -- and make Mexico pay for it -- while painting undocumented Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists.

More than a year later, Trump, now the Republican nominee, is preparing to wade back into the heated immigration debate. This time, though, he appears poised to lay out a more nuanced immigration policy -- one that could roll back some of the unapologetically blunt proposals that helped carry him to victory in the GOP primaries.
    "There could certainly be a softening" in his immigration proposals, Trump told Fox News' Sean Hannity Tuesday night, "because we're not looking to hurt people."
    But the real estate mogul and his new campaign leadership have dodged questions in recent days about whether Trump will abandon the promises he made on illegal immigration that attracted Republican primary voters to his campaign in droves, notably his promise to deport all estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.
    That's fueling questions that Trump may be on the verge of a big flip-flop — something the candidate is denying.
    Here's a look at the various ways he's approached his trademark policy issue.

    Deportation policy

    While denying that he is "flip flopping," Trump and his campaign have made it clear in recent days they are mulling what to do with the undocumented immigrants living in the US.
    "The first thing we're gonna do, if and when I win, is we're gonna get rid of all the bad ones. We've got gang members, we have killers we have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country," Trump said Monday night on Fox News. "As far as everybody else, we're going to go through the process."
    His newly minted campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, said Tuesday morning on Fox News that the campaign wants "to be fair to everyone" and said the campaign is making sure not to "rush through a speech let alone a plan."
    "It's a very complex issue," Conway said.
    But Trump's calls to deport all estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants were anything but equivocal as he campaigned for the Republican nomination.
    In the first month of his campaign, Trump vowed to deport all undocumented immigrants and then allow "the good ones" to re-enter legally.
    "We have a law. You're supposed to come in legally. I would get people out and I would have an expedited way of getting 'em back into the country so they can be legal," Trump told CNN's Dana Bash in July 2015.
    A month later, Trump said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that while those "good ones" could come back in through an "expedited" process, they must first be deported.
    "They have to go," Trump has said repeatedly on the trail. "We either have a country or we don't have a country."
    Trump pressed on with his commitment to this plan at hundreds of rallies where his supporters frequently cited Trump's hardline stance on immigration as the rallying cry that drew them to Trump's unconventional candidacy.
    Trump continued to rise in the polls and -- despite repeated questions from the media about the financial cost of his plan and the need to deport immigrants whom he vowed to allow back into the country -- stuck to his controversial plan.
    "We're rounding 'em up in a very humane way, in a very nice way," Trump said in September on "60 Minutes" discussing how he would implement the deportation plan. "And by the way, I know it doesn't sound nice. But not everything is nice."
    In November, Trump explained he would deploy a "deportation force" to carry out his plans to detain and eject millions of people from the US and cited President Dwight Eisenhower's injection of manpower and funding to deport undocumented immigrants in 1954.

    Building the wall

    If there's one illegal immigration prescription for which Trump has unwaveringly stood by, it's his pledge to build a wall on the southern border.
    While Trump has since specified that the wall would not stretch through areas of the border that already have natural borders, Trump has stuck by his promise, which has become a rallying cry at virtually all of his rallies.
    "And who's going to pay for the wall?" Trump regularly asks his supporters at campaign rallies, to which the crowds respond, "Mexico!"
    Trump even forced a change in the Republican Party's official platform to call for the building of a physical wall along the border with Mexico.
    "That is why we support building a wall along our southern border and protecting all ports of entry. The border wall must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic," the official GOP platform now reads.
    Trump, who earned the endorsement of the union representing about 16,500 border patrol agents, the Border Patrol Council, has also vowed to boost funding and resources to enforcement activities at the southern border.
    Trump has also vowed his wall will include "a big, fat beautiful door right in the middle of the wall" to allow immigrants to come into the US legally.

    Signs of change

    While Trump remains stalwart in his promise to build the border wall and continues to decry the crimes committed by some undocumented immigrants living in the US, Trump has tweaked his rhetoric since becoming the Republican nominee -- suggesting potential changes to his deportation policy.
    In a June interview with Bloomberg, Trump rejected the characterization of his deportation plan as "mass deportations."
    "I would not call it mass deportations," Trump said, without hinting at whether he was rejecting the terminology or the policy.
    Instead, he added, "We're going to get rid of a lot of bad dudes who are here ... that I can tell you."
    The inklings of change on that issue came just as Trump began to pivot away from his proposed blanket ban on Muslims entering the country. The billionaire has yet to refute that policy but has instead pushed for banning people from countries with heavy terrorist activity and where the US government cannot adequately vet visa applicants.
    Trump was set to deliver a major speech on illegal immigration this week, but his campaign decided to postpone the address as it continues to craft its policy and the language to deliver it.
    Trump met Saturday with an advisory group of Hispanic supporters -- including businesspeople, politicians and community leaders -- and emerged vowing to "come up with a fair but firm process" for addressing the issue of about 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the US.
    Trump even pointed Monday night on Fox News to the deportations of undocumented immigrants under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama and said "I'm gonna do the same thing," which, if true, would leave hardline anti-illegal immigration activists who have supported Trump thoroughly disappointed.
    Asked Sunday whether Trump was changing his mind on establishing a deportation force to round up the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the US, Conway, Trump's new campaign manager, responded simply, "To be determined."