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Editorial: On immigration, Trump works both sides of the fence

President Donald J. Trump delivers his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. | Jim Lo Scalzo/AFP/Getty Images

Follow @csteditorialsOn immigration, there are two Donald Trumps.

The first Trump is a strident nationalist hell-bent on deporting all unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., about 11 million people. Just last week, the Trump administration ordered ramped-up deportations.

The second Trump, a lifelong resident of cosmopolitan New York, hints that he just might know better. He occasionally gives a passing nod to the thought that these are human beings we’re talking about.

It was that second Trump who showed up at a meeting Tuesday with TV news anchors. The president actually said, contrary to his usual demonizing rhetoric, that he would like to find a way to give legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes. “The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” Trump reportedly said.

If Trump was listening to his better angels, it’s nice to know he has better angels.


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But on Tuesday, in his speech to a joint session of Congress, President Trump tried to work it both ways.

First he said: “We are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens.”

As if that were the heart of the problem of illegal immigration, which it is not.

Then he said, in one big breath: “Real and positive immigration reform is possible as long as we focus on the following goals: To improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws. If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”

Which sounded vaguely promising, right?

Our real fear is that Trump has no firm views on the matter and is easily manipulated. Our real fear is that at the end of the day he will simply do the bidding of his far-right nationalist aides. His chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and his senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, love walls and deportations and not much else.

It helps to remember we’ve been through this before. Way back in August, candidate Trump floated the idea of a more compassionately lenient immigration policy — and immediately abandoned all such talk when hard-line conservatives ripped him for it.

So, yes, who really knows?

“We’ve seen this movie before,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the advocacy group America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a statement. “After a relentless barrage of vicious anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, Trump pretends to be almost normal, and too many fall for it.”

All we know for sure about Donald Trump when it comes to immigration reform is that he really wants that wall.

Or maybe, here and there, a fence.

All else is up for grabs.

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