Having written about immigration for a quarter-century, I’ve heard more than my share of lies, contradictions and inconsistencies from elected officials in both parties.
So it’s been extremely refreshing these last few weeks to see my colleagues in the media get so worked up over a politician who appears to have reversed course on the immigration issue. It’s a familiar story that many of them have missed over the years.
First, as I’ve said before, I don’t think Trump really did a hard flip-flop on immigration.
It’s not like he talked about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, and then announced that it’s not going to happen. That would be a flip-flop.
Instead, Trump has been clumsy. Immigration was always going to be a tough issue for him because, while Trump has been a politician for just 15 months, he’s been a developer, builder and businessman for nearly 50 years. He must know that the U.S. economy would crumble without illegal immigrant labor. No matter what the politician says, the businessman won’t be eager to rid the country of all undocumented workers.
Even after his fire-breathing speech in Phoenix a couple weeks ago, Trump appears to have once again left the door open to giving at least some of the undocumented a path to legal status. Speaking to reporters aboard his plane, Trump said: “I’m not ruling out anything. We’re going to make that decision into the future.”
And just a few days ago, during an NBC News forum, Trump hedged again when responding to a question about whether an undocumented person who wants to serve in the U.S. military “deserves to stay in this country legally.”
The Republican nominee called that “a very special situation” and said he could imagine himself “working that out.”
Still, if flip-flopping on immigration were an Olympic sport, Trump’s performance would only be strong enough for a silver medal.
Hillary Clinton is in a different league.
In February 2003, during an appearance on a New York radio show, Clinton tried to come across as a moderate by declaring herself “adamantly against illegal immigrants.” Yet, during a January 2008 Democratic primary debate, Clinton bragged that, as a senator, she “co-sponsored comprehensive immigration reform in 2004.”
So Clinton is “adamantly” against illegal immigrants, and yet she wanted to give them a path to citizenship?
Among those of us who cover the immigration beat, and who follow that debate closely, Clinton is not usually described as an outspoken advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. That list includes lawmakers such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. She may well support a legislative approach that includes legalizing the undocumented but she has never stuck her neck out on the issue.
Also, if Clinton really does support comprehensive immigration reform, then why did she later support a worker protection amendment that was meant to kill the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007? Proposed by Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the amendment added a “sunset” clause to the guest-worker provision in the bill and scared off Republican support.
Then there is Clinton’s muddled position on whether the undocumented should get driver’s licenses. She said “no.” Then “yes.” Then “no” again. And by the end of 2007, she had repeatedly flip-flopped — something that Barack Obama pointed out in that debate in January 2008.
“The only point I would make is Senator Clinton gave a number of different answers over the course of six weeks on this issue,” Obama said.
But, for Clinton, the most awkward about-face on immigration had to have been during the Central American refugee crisis in the summer of 2014 when — over the course of 24 hours — she flip-flopped over whether to change a human trafficking law that makes it harder for officials to deport child refugees by ensuring that they get an asylum hearing.
In July 2014, Clinton told National Public Radio that changing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 was something that “should be looked at” because Americans need “some flexibility within the laws.”
The next day, during an interview on Fusion, which is aimed at Hispanic viewers, Clinton declared: “I don’t agree we should change the law.”
What a messy dismount. It is performances like this that show why, in the flip-flop Olympics, Clinton deserves the gold.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.