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Trump's Immigration Speech Was Confusing, Sen. Flake Says

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now comes the fallout from Donald Trump's immigration speech. It's the response after he galvanized a crowd against illegal immigration. His words on Wednesday reassured core supporters.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

But by Thursday, he'd lost some conservative support. Some of Trump's Hispanic advisers abandoned him, saying they'd been hoping he would change his stance. And then there's Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, the state where Trump spoke. He is a Republican who has urged broad immigration reform. Flake had not endorsed Trump but has insisted he's still willing to be convinced.

Did Mr. Trump change your mind?

JEFF FLAKE: No. No, he didn't. Some people said it was a hardening of his position. Some people said softening. To me, it was just a confusing of the position.

INSKEEP: What is something that, in your view, he muddled?

FLAKE: Well, what to do with those who are here illegally now, the so-called 11 million. It's still not clear what will happen. He said they'll have to go back. But this will only be after the border wall is completed. But it's not entirely clear if they could return to the United States because a commission would need to decide, apparently, what visa levels would be allowed. So it's still a bit muddled.

INSKEEP: There was one part of this speech, though, that seemed clear in terms of setting his priorities. He said - and I'm paraphrasing here - I'm not terribly worried about what happens to the 11 million people who are undocumented - family separation or the concerns of people here illegally or what happens to them. He says, my No. 1 priority is Americans.

Is that the right priority?

FLAKE: Well, I think that we can deal with both at the same time. Obviously, we've got to deal with those who are here illegally now. It's a big group that includes the Dreamers, kids who were brought, perhaps, when they were 2 years old, who know no country but the United States and now are trying to go to college, for example.

What did they do? What position are they in? Under what he talked about, they would have to return home, wherever home is - home is really here for them. But they would have to return across some border and then wait for an indefinite period of time until the commission decided what visa levels might allow them to come back and rejoin siblings or other family members.

INSKEEP: When we talk about family separation issues, is that an equation that sometimes involves citizens - their - American citizens who are here?

FLAKE: You bet. I mean, when you look at the so-called 11 million population here, most of them have children who are legal permanent residents or citizens or spouses who have some kind of legal status. And to simply say - well, you know, those 11 million are here illegally; we're going to deport them - it's just not a serious policy. It really isn't.

INSKEEP: Well, help us understand where you are on this issue because Trump also said that his opponents on this issue stand for open borders and for amnesty - that that's what past efforts have been. Is that what your effort was that you signed on to in 2013 when the Senate passed what it described as comprehensive immigration reform?

FLAKE: Not at all. We obviously don't have open borders now. But we have borders that are far too porous. But what we've got to have are four main elements in immigration reform. One, border security - and the so-called Gang of Eight bill provided for that in spades. It was 700 miles of barriers, or fencing; doubling of the Border Patrol; and then trigger mechanisms where we couldn't move on to certain other aspects of immigration reform until those items and plans were in place.

But then you need enforcement on the interior, so some kind of mandatory E-Verify-style program for employers to determine whether people are here legally or not. Then you need robust temporary worker programs, both for high-skilled workers and lesser-skilled individuals. We need those for our economy. And then last, you've got to have a mechanism to deal with those who are here illegally now, and it can't wait. There are people in the shadows now that ought to come out. And they ought to have some kind of status while they are looking to adjust their status. Otherwise, then we have an untenable situation even longer.

INSKEEP: Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, good to talk with you again.

FLAKE: Thanks. Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: And we should let you know there is a long-standing invitation for Donald Trump to take NPR's questions on immigration and other issues. We will keep inviting him to have a talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.