By Steve Holland
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (Reuters) - In a new twist to his immigration proposals, U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump held out the possibility of legal status for millions of illegal immigrants, but only after many other border enforcement steps are taken.
Trump, in remarks to a small group of reporters whom he invited on his plane for the first time since accepting his party's nomination, said parts of his hardline immigration speech last week in Phoenix had been misinterpreted and that he had in fact softened his position to some extent.
The New York businessman said that before considering how to deal with millions of illegal immigrants who are obeying U.S. laws and contributing to American society, he first wants to evict criminal elements like drug smugglers and build a border wall.
Any illegal immigrants who want to gain citizenship will have to first return to their home countries first and get in line behind legal applicants, he said.
But for those who stay behind, Trump said their cases would be considered at some undefined point. Asked about a potential legal status for this group, Trump did not rule it out.
“We’re going to make that decision into the future. That decision will be made," he said. "The first thing will be to get the bad elements out, the gang members, get 'em all out. We secure the border. We stop the drugs from coming in, because the drugs are pouring in ... We’re going to build the wall. We need the wall to stop the drugs."
Such a piecemeal approach has been pushed by Republican congressional leaders over the years because it is extremely hard to get a comprehensive immigration reform bill through the U.S. Congress.
Trump has struggled to strike the right tone on how he would take on illegal immigration if elected on Nov. 8. After flirting with a softer tone, he stuck to his hardline position in Phoenix last week, saying that anyone in the United States illegally would be subject to deportation.
Trump, seated with vice presidential running mate Mike Pence in tan leather seats aboard his private jet, was relaxed for a session with reporters of more than a half hour, clearly feeling better about his campaign after polls showed him closing the gap with Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Talking about his recent effort to appeal to African-American voters, Trump was asked if it was difficult to attract black voters since he has raised doubts about whether Democratic President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Trump waved off the question, saying it was an issue he did not want to get into anymore because reporters would seize on it. In 2011 while under fire from Trump, Obama produced his long-form birth certificate to prove that he was, indeed, born in Hawaii.
"I don't talk about it because if I talk about that, your whole thing will be about that," Trump said. "So I don't talk about it."
He said his focus for the final two months of the campaign will be mostly about how to create jobs for struggling middle-class Americans."I'm all about the jobs now," he said.
Trump also pledged to participate in all three presidential debates, saying he considered it an important part of being a candidate. He also said he was fine with the moderators announced last week.
(Reporting by Steve Holland)