Is he or isn't he? That's been the question of the week about whether Donald Trump is "softening" his hardline stance on illegal immigration, adopted ahead of the Republican primaries.
What exactly is going on with Trump and immigration remains the subject of uncertainty and debate. But the Republican presidential nominee's machinations have revealed some areas of broad agreement on a polarizing hot-button topic.
Nearly everyone from Hillary Clinton to Ann Coulter agrees that the top immigration enforcement priority should be people who aren't authorized to be in this country who have committed serious crimes. When Trump signaled that he too would focus on removing criminal aliens first — which has actually always been the position outlined in his formal, Jeff Sessions-inspired immigration plan, if not his campaign rhetoric — some said he was taking the Obama administration's position.
That's true insofar as it is every mainstream politician's position. The difference between President Obama and immigration hawk critics (the jury is still out on whether that still includes Trump) is that he has wound down the removal of other illegal immigrants. Devoting the most resources to criminal aliens does not necessarily require conceding that other illegal immigrants won't be removed.
The fact is, it is possible to assert that all illegal immigrants in the country are eligible for deportation without actually going around deporting them all.
The Democrats have moved left on immigration
Not everyone would necessarily put it in these terms. Many people would be more inclined to say that Trump has moved Republicans to the right on immigration or committed the party to policies like mass deportation.
Yet implicitly, most people would acknowledge a sea change in the Democrats' approach to this issue. The Obama administration once claimed that it was responsible for record deportations. The numbers could be disputed, but the White House's desire to seem serious about border security and interior enforcement was not.
After the failure of several bipartisan immigration bills while George W. Bush was president, many supporters of so-called comprehensive immigration reform concluded that no legalization program for a large number of illegal immigrants was politically possible without gaining the public's trust on enforcement.
So Bush became less lax toward the end of his administration and Obama publicly continued that trend. This prompted criticism from Latino groups and the president's left from activists demanding "not one more" deportation. Many also tried to persuade Obama to legalize undocumented immigrants through executive action, but he repeatedly said he lacked the authority do so under current law.
More recently, Obama has embraced a much more expansive view of what he can legally do to keep people who should otherwise be subject to deportation in the country. He has issued sweeping executive orders in effect exempting subcategories of illegal immigrants from removal, arguing that these are not policy changes so much as exercises in prosecutorial discretion.
The legality of these orders has not been resolved, with the president facing some unfavorable court decisions. What is clear, however, is that Democrats don't want to be seen as the party of record deportations, whether it serves the interest of some broader immigration legislation or not. Clinton and Bernie Sanders both promised executive action on immigration that went even further than Obama.
Democrats as a party have come close to expressing disapproval of deportation as an immigration enforcement tool when the unauthorized immigrant is guilty of no other serious crime or a family will be broken up as a result.
Some have criticized Trump for citing past law-and-order rhetoric from Democrats on immigration, saying the unreliable nominee has now adopted their position. It could just as easily be argued that Trump is signaling how far to the left Democrats have moved in the last seven years.
A matter of trust
The contretemps over Trump and immigration has been a useful reminder of how much this issue revolves around trust. For many conservatives, it goes back to 1986.
That year, President Ronald Reagan signed bipartisan immigration legislation that offered amnesty for nearly 3 million illegal immigrants in exchange for more enforcement. Conservatives trusted Reagan and the Republican-controlled Senate.
The amnesty certainly happened, yet conservatives were not satisfied with the way the enforcement promises were carried out. Since then, comprehensive immigration reform — its supporters refuse to call legalization amnesty — has been advanced by people conservatives trust less than Reagan, including Bush, Obama, Ted Kennedy and John McCain.
There are also serious questions about the immigration bureaucracy's ability to process the number large number of illegal immigrants who would potentially be eligible for some kind of legal status now. The concern is that they would either ignore a lot of the conditions for legalization or enforce them so rigorously than many would opt to stay in the shadows rather than invite government scrutiny.
Immigration hawks generally assumed the former was the likelier scenario, therefore opposing a parade of bills that have been introduced since 2005.
Might Trump people able to get away with things that other politicians, even other Republicans, can't because his voters trust him on immigration? Time will tell. In the meantime, he has inadvertently clarified some things about the current immigration debate.