There's a long-standing theory that Democratic politicians seek a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally because a lot of those new citizens will vote Democratic. In September, Donald Trump embraced the idea, telling an interviewer that, if he lost, “this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning" because immigrants will flow across the border, become citizens and then vote Democratic forever.
In a discussion with some border patrol agents Friday, Trump implied that some people might be skipping that middle step.
“I spoke to several agents in my sector who are in charge of processing," said Del Cueto. "And the problem that we’re seeing reflected through us as a voice is that some of these individuals that we're apprehended with criminal records, they’re not, they’re checking their records, they see that they have criminal records, but they’re setting them aside because at this point they are saying immigration is so tied up with trying to get the people who are on the waiting list to hurry up and get them their immigration status corrected.”
“Why?” asked Trump.
"So they can go ahead and vote before the election," Del Cueto replied.
Trump replied: “Big statement, fellas.” He motioned to the small group of reporters who were covering the event. After some crosstalk, he continued: “You’re not going to write it. That’s huge. But they’re letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.”
That's not exactly what Del Cueto said. Del Cueto seemed to be saying that immigration resources were being spent on fast-tracking citizenship applications instead of addressing people with criminal records who've entered the country illegally. (It's not entirely clear, but Del Cueto replied to Trump's summary: "They want to hurry up and fast-track them so they can go ahead and vote in the election.")
Update: A representative of the union told McClatchy that Del Cueto had inadvertently combined two issues when speaking with Trump.
Whether that's true is one thing. There have been a number of reports that support the idea that people on the cusp of gaining citizenship are hoping to have the process resolved so that they can vote. Our Ed O'Keefe reported in May that the 2016 election had spurred "a surge" in the number of people seeking citizenship applications and new citizens registering to vote. In March, Bloomberg reported that the Mexican government was aiding efforts to help permanent legal residents transition into American citizens. (They insisted, though, that the idea was not to influence the results of the election.)
But that's different from what Trump heard Del Cueto say — a summary for which there's no non-anecdotal evidence. It's illegal for noncitizens to vote in federal elections, which is not by itself prohibitive (any more than murder being illegal means no one is murdered). There's no evidence, though, that immigrants (a) come to the country illegally to vote, (b) register to vote illegally and (c) cast votes in federal elections on any substantive scale.
A report from Trump supporter Laura Ingraham's website Lifezette this week stated that the Public Interest Legal Foundation, a group that focuses on purported voter fraud, said that it had identified noncitizens registered to vote in Pennsylvania and Virginia, some 1,100 from 2005 to 2015, a portion of whom cast votes. The problem, the group figured, was motor-voter laws, in which people who get driver's licenses are registered to vote automatically — even if they leave blank the box asking whether they are citizens. Incidentally, in 2012, 9.6 million people voted in those two states, meaning that even if all of those 1,100 people had voted (which they didn't), it would have been 1 percent of 1 percent of all votes cast. (A reminder: There's essentially no in-person voter fraud in American politics.)
I note this story to point out that bureaucratic glitches that result in voter registrations for people who shouldn't be allowed to vote is very different from what Trump is describing. "They're letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote," Trump said — a claim for which there's no evidence. Are "they" — some murky part of the government cabal working to stymie Trump — also giving out driver's licenses and hoping that bureaucracy will overlook that the new drivers shouldn't be allowed to vote? Or is there some other nefarious process at play that hasn't yet been uncovered?
Immigrants in the country illegally are less likely to be politically engaged, for perhaps obvious reasons. A 2012 Pew Research survey found that Hispanic immigrants here illegally are less likely to identify as or lean toward the Democratic Party than are Hispanic citizens and Hispanic registered voters. But notice that more than a quarter of those in the country illegally don't identify with either party. (Only 9 percent of registered Hispanic voters say the same.)
Trump's goal, incessantly, is to argue that the system is rigged against him and his candidacy and that illegal immigration is a massive problem undermining the United States. His interpretation of Del Cueto's remarks fits neatly into both of those lines of thinking, which is probably part of the reason it was the interpretation Trump made. The good news for Trump is that the states that are home to the most undocumented immigrants are California and Texas. If they're moving in to vote, he can be confident at least that they won't shift the electoral map that much.