Donald Trump has promised to be “fair but firm” towards the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, in a shift in tone that raised questions on whether he is backtracking from previous pledges to push for mass deportations.
The billionaire businessman, whose hardline approach to immigration and fierce rhetoric propelled him to the Republican presidential nomination, insisted that he was not “flip-flopping” on the divisive issue as he worked to broaden his support two and a half months before the general election.
But in a meeting with Hispanic activists on Saturday, Mr Trump indicated he was open to considering allowing those who had not committed crimes beyond their immigration offences to obtain some form of legal status – though attendees stressed he had yet to make up his mind.
“The impression I got was that the campaign is working on substantive policy to help the undocumented that are here, including some type of status so they would not be deported,” said Pastor Mario Bramnick, president of the Hispanic Israel Leadership Coalition, who was at the meeting.
Any backtrack would mark a dramatic reversal for Mr Trump. During the Republican primary he vowed to use a “deportation force” to round up and deport the millions of people living in the country illegally – a proposal that excited many of his core supporters, but alienated Hispanic voters who could be pivotal in key states.
Mr Trump said in an interview with Fox & Friends on Monday that he was “working with a lot of people in the Hispanic community to try and come up with an answer”.
“We want to come up with a really fair, but firm answer. It has to be very firm. But we want to come up with something fair,” he said.
Later, he told Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly: “I just want to follow the law.
“The first thing we’re going to do, if and when I win, is we’re going to get rid of all of the bad ones.
“We’ve got gang members, we have killers, we have a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country. We’re going to get them out.
“As far as everybody else, we’re going to go through the process,” he said, citing the policies of President Barack Obama and former president George Bush as examples.
Asked whether Mr Trump’s plan still included a deportation force, his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said it was “to be determined”.
Mr Trump had been scheduled to deliver a speech on the topic in Colorado on Thursday, but has postponed it.
There have been signs for weeks now that Mr Trump was shifting course.
Hispanic business and religious leaders who would like to see him move in a more inclusive direction have reported closed-door conversations with Mr Trump in which they say he has signalled possibly embracing a less punitive immigration policy that focuses on “compassion” along with the rule of law.
At last month’s party convention, the Republican National Committee’s director of Hispanic communications, Helen Aguirre Ferre, told reporters at a Spanish-language briefing that Mr Trump had already said he “will not do massive deportations” – despite the fact that he had never said so publicly.
Instead, Ms Aguirre Ferre said, “he will focus on removing the violent undocumented who have criminal records and live in the country”.
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is spending the next three days fundraising across California.
She will stop at the homes of actors Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel in Los Angeles, address donors with NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson in Beverly Hills and join Apple CEO Tim Cook and other business leaders in Silicon Valley.
But Mrs Clinton’s email scandal continues to haunt her.
In the latest revelations, the State Department said it was reviewing nearly 15,000 previously undisclosed emails.
They were recovered as part of the FBI’s now-closed investigation into the handling of sensitive information that flowed through Mrs Clinton’s private home server during her time as US secretary of state.
Lawyers for the department said they anticipate releasing the first batch of these new emails in mid-October, raising the prospect new messages sent or received by Democratic nominee could become public just before Election Day.