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Immigration stew

Wednesday is a red letter day for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump as he unveils — or perhaps the better word is "clarifies" — his position on immigration in what has been billed as a major policy address in Arizona. If recent history is any guide, it should prove tough and soft, clear and opaque, unforgiving and humane. In other words, good luck figuring out where the reality TV star stands since he's likely to dramatically change his position, or have it reinterpreted by his minions, in the days and weeks that follow.

Rarely has a presidential candidate flip-flopped on an issue, particularly one that has been identified as a cornerstone of his campaign, as thoroughly as Mr. Trump has done on illegal immigration. During the GOP primaries, he was a hard core proponent of building a wall along the nation's southern border and deporting all 11 million people who have entered the country illegally by whatever means necessary. In recent weeks, he has been "softening" — the very word he has used to describe it and more than once — with talk of not engaging a "deportation force" and setting "humane" priorities that focus on deporting the "bad ones."

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Yet, particularly when appearing on conservative media like shows on the Fox News network, he has insisted that he's not flip-flopping at all. One day he talks about the "very powerful wall" that he will build and that he is not open to any pathway to legalization. Within hours, he gives a speech in Iowa describing immigration as a "civil rights issue" and says he doesn't intend to deport everyone who has entered the country illegally after all. Later, there is talk from a Trump adviser of a "virtual wall" instead of bricks and mortar, a claim the campaign later disavows.

Serving as a spokesperson for the Trump campaign clearly requires the flexibility of a Simone Biles at her Olympic best. On Sunday, Mr. Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, said on CNN that the ticket's position has been consistent: "Let's be clear, nothing has changed about Donald Trump's position on dealing with illegal immigration," Mr. Pence said. Yet on a similar Sunday morning talk show on Fox, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway conceded that a deportation force (a talking point in the primaries) has been dropped. On NBC, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus suggested that the Trump immigration policy was still being banged out but predicted it would prove "tough," "fair" and "humane."

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Here's our reading of the tea leaves: Mr. Trump wants to take a position on immigration that will get him elected president. The extremist views he espoused during the primary season won't get the job done, so he's simply trying to sound tough while signaling to the Hispanic community and independent voters that he hears their concerns as well. In his speech, he'll likely toss around the usual anti-immigration rhetoric — like opposing "amnesty" — without necessarily revealing what will happen to those 11 million souls living in the shadows.

Considering the candidate's disdain for policy specifics, this level of imprecision and prevarication should come rather easily. His recent outreach to African American voters has been similarly devoid of substance, often insulting (like his suggestion that black youth unemployment is at 58 percent instead of the actual 19 percent) and seemingly more focused on lessening his reputation for racism than actually soliciting support from black voters. Typical was his social media posting accusing Hillary Clinton of being a "bigot" because she once described the late Sen. Robert Byrd as a "mentor" while serving in the U.S. Senate. The West Virginia senator was once a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan (not to mention a civil rights opponent) until he had a change of heart decades ago. Had David Duke and other pro-Trump white supremacists similarly renounced their racist views, Mr. Trump might deserve the benefit of the doubt as well.

That's not to suggest, a bit of flip-flopping wouldn't serve Mr. Trump well. His positions on immigration, particularly those from the early days of his campaign when he equated Mexicans with rapists, have often been shameful. But how could anyone possibly believe him now? As even die-hard conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh observed this week, Mr. Trump can't be taken seriously on the subject of immigration.

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