Donald Trump is now for amnesty—maybe, sort of, at least for a little bit.
In his interview with Time magazine for his Person of the Year award, the mogul discussed the plight of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who have otherwise followed the law and pursued jobs and education. In 2012, President Obama unilaterally created a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that let these people apply for temporary work permits and protection from deportation. In the years since then about 730,000 people have received DACA status.
The program drew scorching, unremitting, intense criticism from many Republicans on the Hill, as well as Tea Party activists and party leaders (including Reince Priebus). Opponents called it “executive amnesty,” and Priebus promised that if Republicans won the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections, they would do everything possible to stop DACA. Rep. Steve King, an immigration hawk from Iowa, even suggested that the program might protect drug traffickers.
“For every one who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” he told Newsmax. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.”
People with criminal records are ineligible for DACA status, and King’s statement drew criticism for its absurdity (then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor called it “inexcusable,” and former Speaker of the House John Boehner described as “hateful”).
So Republicans invested significant political capital in criticizing the program, suggesting it was undermining the Constitution and rule of law, and that DACA recipients would steal American jobs and weaken the economy. Trump also promised on the campaign trail, repeatedly, that he would undo Obama’s move if elected—which he now will have the power to do.
But the prospect of deporting hundreds of thousands of otherwise law-abiding people who have jobs and educations may have lost its shine for Trump. So he’s now suggesting what his top supporters have spent years opposing: amnesty.
“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” he told Time. “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.”
It’s unclear what exactly that “something” is that Trump will “work out.” And parsing his words is often an exercise in silliness and futility. But the comment is the kind of thing that sites like Breitbart despise. One Breitbart article, published April 20, 2015, grilled a Marco Rubio spokesman over the issue, suggesting that any legal amnesty for DACA recipients that came before the border was secured would be unacceptable.
That said, other immigration hardliners were unperturbed by Trump’s statement. Dan Stein, who heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Trump’s comment may just be a trial balloon.
“You can’t take anything Trump says at face value,” he said. “This may be a negotiating tool designed to determine the good faith of people that claim they want to see real reform.”
But he added that his group doesn’t support any legal protection for current DACA beneficiaries.
“We don’t support letting DACA beneficiaries stay here, because we as a nation don’t owe them any priority because they simply broke the law,” he said.
And Center for Immigration Studies head Mark Krikorian—who pushes for more restrictive immigration policy and stricter enforcement of immigration laws—said Trump’s statement means he wants amnesty, and that that’s OK. Republicans should use legal amnesty for DACA recipients as a bargaining chip, he argues—offering it in exchange for their own top priorities, like legislation that would make it harder for businesses to hire undocumented workers or stricter rules about which immigrants can get visas.
“Amnesty means illegal aliens get to stay,” he said. “That’s all it means. Anything and everything that allows illegal aliens to stay legally is an amnesty. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. We have tax amnesties, we have parking amnesties.”
By that definition, Trump’s proposal to Time was undisputably for amnesty.