Washington Week

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Trump vs. Clinton: Immigration

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows

The presidential election has entered its final stretch, and Donald Trump seems to be wavering on his signature issue: to build a "big, fat, beautiful wall" along the American border with Mexico. While Trump’s supporters question his ability to build the wall and deport millions of undocumented immigrants, Hillary Clinton has aligned herself firmly behind the immigration policies of President Barack Obama. But aligning herself so closely with Obama, who some immigration reform advocates have labeled the "deporter-in-chief," could be a risky strategy. 

As the race to the White House tightens with only two months to go, Washington Week is looking at the candidates’ takes on the most controversial issues. We have already covered gun control and terrorism, and now we dive into immigration:


Clinton has largely followed the policies of the Obama administration in her approach to immigration, promising in her platform to "focus resources on detaining and deporting those individuals who pose a violent threat to public safety."

She also pledges to work on reinstating DACA and DAPA, executive actions signed by Obama that deferred the deportations of up to five million immigrants, until it stalled before the Supreme Court. Clinton took Obama’s policies even one step further in March, when she unequivocally promised during a Democratic primary debate, "I will not deport children. I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members, either."

Trump kicked off his presidential campaign by calling for aggressive, mass deportations of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. He promised his base supporters that he would establish a "deportation force" to lower the number of undocumented immigrants, whom he painted as rapists and crime lords when he announced his campaign.

Trump has also appeared rather ambivalent about the fate of "DREAMers," young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and are protected under DACA. When asked about the DREAMers in February, the GOP nominee said,  "We're always talking about 'DREAMers' for other people. I want the children that are growing up in the United States to be dreamers also. They're not dreaming right now."

But Trump’s immigration policy has shifted repeatedly in recent weeks, signaling in an August interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity that he was open to a potential “softening” on deportations. "There could certainly be a softening" Trump said, "because we're not looking to hurt people."

He then quickly doubled down on his hard-line approach in an Arizona address, outlining a policy that could make more than 6 million immigrants immediately eligible for deportation.

Building a wall along the southern border

Trump first promised to build a wall along the southern border when he announced his presidential campaign last June, telling the gathered crowd, "I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall." The Republican nominee has stood by the campaign promise, making the wall -- and the guarantee that Mexico will pay for it -- a central feature of his platform’s immigration policy.

But, during a recent meeting with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump seemed to waffle on the commitment, when he answered a reporter’s question about the matter, “We did discuss the wall. We didn't discuss payment of the wall. That'll be for a later date. This was a very preliminary meeting." Peña Nieto later refuted Trump’s account of the meeting, claiming that he had made clear Mexico would not pay for the wall.

Then, during an immigration speech later that same day, Trump reversed his tone again, telling his supporters, “We will build a great wall along the Southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall -- 100 percent.”

Although Clinton’s platform also calls to "protect our borders and national security," she has mocked Trump’s idea for a border wall as "fantasy." Trump and other commentators have hit Clinton over her 2006 Senate vote in favor of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border, but, during a March primary debate, she pointed to those measures as proof that a wall would not be necessary. "The result is that we have the most secure border we have ever had," Clinton said at the Democratic debate. "Which just strengthens my argument that now it is time to do comprehensive immigration reform."

Pathway to citizenship

Clinton wishes to promote naturalization and make it easier for immigrants to integrate into American life. Her first priority in her immigration platform is to enact comprehensive immigration reform with “a pathway to full and equal citizenship” within her first 100 days in office. She has pledged to expand fee waivers to decrease naturalization costs, and increase outreach and education to make the process easier for more people.

As part of her belief that immigration is vital and beneficial to the country, Clinton has also proposed the creation of a National Office of Immigrant Affairs that will support immigration integration. The office will significantly increase federal resources for community navigators, and English language and citizenship education courses.

Trump, however, believes that immigrants will not assimilate. In his most recent immigration speech following his meeting with Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto, he said: "We also have to be honest about the fact that not everyone who seeks to join our country will be able to successfully assimilate. Sometimes it’s just not going to work out. It’s our right, as a sovereign nation, to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us." He has proposed an "ideological certification" test to determine which immigrants "share our values" and would thus be able to integrate more effectively.

Trump also wishes to suspend birthright citizenship, or the policy that grants automatic citizenship to the children of immigrants born on American soil. He has previously stated that his platform does not include a path to legalization, later clarifying that immigrants could become citizens if they "leave the country, if they come back in and then they have to start paying taxes."

Detention centers

Trump has previously supported the detention of undocumented immigrants. His platform pledges to end catch-and-release practices, focusing instead on detaining immigrants apprehended for crossing the border in detention centers and then sending them back. He has also suggested tripling the number of ICE officers, many of whom would assist in the detainment of undocumented immigrants and place them in detention centers before deporting them.

However, following what many called a “softening” of his stance on immigration earlier this month, Trump told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that he was “not going to put [immigrants] in a detention center.” He has not yet clarified how he would avoid this.

Clinton, in her efforts to protect immigrant families, supports ending family detention for parents and children who arrive at the border “in desperate situations.” Following concerns about the safety of detainees, Clinton has also pledged to close private immigration detention centers, which currently hold about two-thirds of the more than 31,000 detainees in custody on a typical day.

In her platform, however, Clinton calls for more resources to detain and deport “those individuals who pose a violent threat to public safety.” In order to do so, and to keep her promise to close private detention centers, she would have to get funds from Congress to increase the number of public immigration detention centers.

Refugee immigration

Trump has consistently supported the screening of refugees entering the country, and has even gone so far to suggest a complete ban on refugee immigration. In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings in December, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Over the next few months, and following the attack on an Orlando nightclub in June, Trump shifted his stance, saying that it would be a temporary ban and would apply to immigrants from all “areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism.” He later linked Syrian refugees to ISIS, saying that “a lot” of them were members of the terrorist organization.

Trump has remained adamant on his views of refugees. In a speech in Detroit on Saturday, he reinforced the need for strict refugee screening, saying: “We shouldn’t have [Syrian refugees] in the country. We don’t know who these people are. We have no idea. This could be the all time great Trojan horse.

Clinton, on the other hand, has pledged to welcome Syrian refugees into the U.S. to help alleviate the crises created by the war there. Last September, she said that the U.S. should “do more” and accept 65,000 Syrian refugees. And her stance hasn’t changed. Clinton’s platform states that she wishes to ensure refugees who seek asylum in the U.S. have a fair chance.

Clinton has also repeatedly slammed Trump for his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Following the Orlando shooting in June, she critiqued his proposed Muslim ban and said it “goes against everything we stand for as a nation.”