PHOENIX — Donald Trump attempted to clarify his views on immigration in a speech Wednesday in Phoenix, saying the country needs a wall on the southern border, extra agents patrolling it and an aggressive system to expel 2 million immigrants with criminal ties.
Trump said he wants a system that accepts only people likely to thrive and love their new country.
Billed as a major speech, it largely reinforced the hard-line position Trump has staked out from the outset of his campaign. He maintained the current system fuels crime and leaves Americans damaged economically by illegal immigrants in the U.S.
"There is only one core issue in the immigration debate and that is the well-being of the American people. Nothing even comes a close second," Trump said to loud applause. "Our greatest compassion must be for our American citizens."
The first feature of his plan was the wall that he has promised nearly from the beginning.
“We will build a great wall along the southern border,” said Trump, who was joined by his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. “And Mexico will pay for the wall, 100%. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to pay for it.”
Trump’s speech came hours after the Republican nominee met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City. Trump said the two discussed the need for both countries to stem illegal immigration and said he viewed a wall as a sovereign right. Trump said they did not discuss payment for the wall, though Peña Nieto said later in a tweet he raised the issue.
"At the start of the conversation with Donald Trump, I made clear that Mexico will not pay for the wall,” according to Peña Nieto's account.
The foreign visit raised further interest in the Phoenix event that has been expected nationally for more than a week yet swirled with questions of cancellation, a change in topic or a shift in Trump’s policy position.
Since at least June, Trump backed off promises of mass deportations. On Aug. 23, for example, Trump told Fox News "there could certainly be a softening because we're not looking to hurt people."
After drawing a line against allowing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Trump added, "They'll pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes. There’s no amnesty, as such. There’s no amnesty, but we work with them.”
In Phoenix on Wednesday, Trump held firm on deporting illegal immigrants, prioritizing those with serious criminal records. Last week Trump acknowledged that approach is "the same thing" as the Obama administration has used "perhaps with a lot more energy."
“We will begin moving them out, day one,” Trump said “My first hour in office, those people are gone. ... You can call it whatever the hell you want, they’re gone.”
Trump promised again to have "extreme vetting" that would bar immigrants from countries that pose a security threat, such as Syria and Libya.
"We have no idea who they are," he said of refugees entering from such places. "It's going to end badly folks. It's going to end badly."
In some cases undocumented immigrants are treated "better than our vets. Not going to happen any more folks. November 8."
In Cincinnati, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, ripped Trump's visit to Mexico before he got there.
“It certainly takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours and then flying home again,” she said.
Trump’s immigration speech comes as he is trailing Clinton in most national polling. Earlier this month, Trump signaled a rhetorical “softening” of his views on immigration. The campaign quickly backed away from that as some supporters saw a flip-flop on the issue as betraying perhaps the cornerstone of his appeal.