PHOENIX (AP) – Seeking to end confusion over his aggressive but recently muddled language on immigration, Donald Trump vowed Wednesday to remove millions of people living in the country illegally if he becomes president, warning that failure to do so would jeopardize the “well-being of the American people.”
Yet the Republican presidential nominee failed to outline what he would do with those who have not committed crimes beyond their immigration offenses – a sharp retreat after promises during his primary campaign to create a “deportation force” to remove the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
Trump instead repeated the standard Republican talking point that only after securing the border can a discussion begin to take place about what to do about those who remain, ducking the major question that has frustrated past congressional attempts at remaking the nation’s immigration laws.
Yet the fiery speech was filled with applause lines for Trump’s loyal supporters, including his insistence that immigrants in the country without permission who wish to seek legal status or citizenship must return to their home countries in order to do so.
He also drew cheers when he outlined plans to create a special task force that would prioritize the deportation of criminals, people who have overstayed their visas and other immediate security threats.
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation,” Trump charged in the highly anticipated speech, which took place hours after Trump met with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Any person living in the country illegally who is arrested “for any crime whatsoever,” he said, will immediately be placed into deportation proceedings.
He added, “There will be no amnesty.”
Trump also promised to restrict legal immigration, calling for a commission that would keep the percentage of foreign-born people in the country to “historic norms.”
At 12.9 percent, the U.S. now has its highest percentage of foreign-born residents since 1920. Trump argues the high levels of immigration, both legal and illegal, have injured American workers by depressing wages.
“We have to listen to the concerns that working people, our forgotten working people, have over the record pace of immigration and its impact on their jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills and general living conditions,” Trump said.
The aggressive tone in Phoenix marked a shift from earlier in the day, when a much more measured Trump described Mexicans as “amazing people” as he appeared alongside Pena Nieto in Mexico’s capital city. It was his first meeting with a head of state as his party’s presidential nominee.
Shortly after the joint appearance, a dispute arose over the most contentious part of the billionaire’s plans to fight illegal immigration – his insistence that Mexico must pay to build a physical wall along the roughly 2,000-mile U.S. southern border.
Trump told reporters during the afternoon appearance that the two men didn’t discuss who would pay for a cost of construction pegged in the billions. Silent at that moment, Pena Nieto later tweeted, “I made it clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall.”
With the meeting held behind closed doors, it was impossible to know who was telling the truth. But the clash cast a cloud over the meeting and threatened to overshadow the evening address.
Trump told the rowdy Arizona crowd that he respects the Mexican president. “We agreed on the importance of ending the illegal flow of drugs, cash, guns and people across our border and to put the cartels out of business,” he said.
Yet, standing on American soil, he addressed directly a question he sidestepped when asked in Mexico.
“Mexico will pay for the wall, 100 percent,” the New York businessman said. “They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for the wall.”
The Mexican president, however, said on Twitter that the subject was among the first things the men discussed. “From there, the conversation addressed other issues, and developed in a respectful manner,” Pena Nieto wrote.
Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration, backed by an “America First” foreign policy, has defined his outsider presidential bid.
Critics accuse Trump of fueling xenophobia and white nationalist rhetoric. His supporters cite the flow of drugs across the border and Trump himself has repeatedly highlighted victims of crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally, something he made a big part of his Wednesday night speech.
Before he took the stage, he was introduced by a series of speakers, including some parents whose children were killed by people living in the country illegally. They belong to a group called The Remembrance Project and shared stories of loss with the thousands-strong crowd.
Trump was cheered in Arizona, but his appearance in Mexico sparked anger and protests. The candidate is deeply unpopular in Mexico due in large part to his deriding the country as a source of rapists and criminals as he kicked off his campaign. He piled on in the months to come, attacked the country over free trade, illegal immigration and border security.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox bluntly told the celebrity businessman that, despite Pena Nieto’s hospitality, he was not welcome.
“We don’t like him. We don’t want him. We reject his visit,” Fox said on CNN, calling the trip a “political stunt.”
Campaigning in Ohio, Democrat Hillary Clinton jabbed at Trump’s Mexican appearance as she promoted her own experience working with foreign leaders as the nation’s chief diplomat.
“People have to get to know that they can count on you, that you won’t say one thing one day and something totally different the next,” she told the American Legion in Cincinnati.