CINCINNATI — “Crushed.” ”Disappointed.” ”Confused.”
Some Hispanic leaders who have been advising Donald Trump say they feel betrayed after his long-awaited immigration speech that definitively ruled out a pathway to legal status for people living in the country illegally.
Trump stopped short of calling for the mass deportation of millions of people who have not committed crimes beyond their immigration offenses. But he also ruled out what he dismissed as “amnesty,” saying those who want to live legally in the U.S. will need to leave and head to the back of the line in their home countries.
“People will know that you can’t just smuggle in, hunker down and wait to be legalized,” Trump declared in his hard-line speech Wednesday night. “Those days are over.”
The language caught off guard a group of Hispanic faith and business leaders who have been advising him, often in the face of criticism from their own communities. In closed-door meetings, phone calls and in public statements, Trump and his aides had given many the impression that he was prepared to soften his stance on immigration as he tries to court more moderate, general election voters and boost his standing with Hispanics and other minorities.
Now, some feel Trump misled them.
“There’s several of us who have gone out on a limb, if you will, to try to at least be at the table of reason with him, and that’s left us confused and disappointed,” said Tony Suarez, the executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He’s been among those pushing Trump to moderate his stance.
As recently as Monday, he said, the GOP presidential nominee had signaled on a conference call with faith leaders that they could expect to see a gentler, more compassionate Trump in the speech. Trump, Suarez said, was asked explicitly whether they would see a softening or any “hope” for at least some of the people currently living in the shadows.
“He said, ‘Yes,’ and he thought we would be very pleased on Wednesday,” said Suarez. “The impression given on the call was not what we heard last night.”
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, had prominently endorsed Trump after initially opposing his candidacy. He, too, said Trump had signaled a willingness to moderate some of his immigration plans, including limiting his call for deportations to those convicted of crimes.
“At this point, I just don’t see how I can support him. So I’m withdrawing my support,” Aguilar said. “I was expecting something very different last night. I’m not naive, I knew who I was dealing with. I knew this could happen. It was a risk.
“From a political perspective, this is the end of Donald Trump. I really think now he’s definitely going to lose.”
Trump’s campaign, however, insisted the billionaire businessman had never wavered.
“Mr. Trump has been consistent in advocating for an end to illegal immigration and he will continue to reach out and work with voters from all communities to defeat Crooked Hillary Clinton this fall,” said Jason Miller, the campaign’s senior communications adviser.
Those speaking out against Trump also included Jacob Monty, a Houston-based attorney and member of the candidate’s National Hispanic Advisory Council. In a Facebook post, Monty said he was finished supporting Trump after hearing the speech.
“I gave Donald TRUMP a Plan that would improve border security, remove hardened criminal aliens and most importantly give work authority to the millions of honest, hardworking immigrants in the US. He rejected that tonight and so I must reject him,” he wrote, adding that Trump had at one point been moving toward a “compassionate immigration plan.”
“Tonight he was not a Republican but a populist, modern-day Father Coughlin who demonized immigrants,” he continued, referring to an anti-Semitic priest who gained prominence as a radio personality in the 1930s. “He must want to lose. He can do that without me.”
Mark Gonzalez, founder of the Hispanic Action Network, had also expected Trump to go in a different direction.
“We didn’t see compassion last night so we’re extremely disappointed,” he said. “We were anticipating something a lot more favorable.”
“He definitely didn’t help himself with the Latino community last night.”
Suarez, who had never endorsed Trump personally, said he would now be focusing his attention on Congress and on electing lawmakers who are more amenable to immigration reform.
“We’re disappointed and it’s only raised more questions than answers,” he said of Trump’s speech. “We tried,” he said. “You don’t always win. We tried.”
But Pastor Mario Bramnick, president of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition and another member of the advisory council, said he would be sticking with Trump because he believes the GOP nominee still has “a real desire to help the undocumented.”
Trump’s more conciliatory tone during his surprise visit to Mexico Wednesday, coupled with his private comments and some language in the speech, give Bramnick hope that Trump will one day unveil a plan “that’s going to secure the border and that’s going to be just and equitable to help the undocumented.”
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report from Washington.
Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj