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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Muddies Immigrant Voting Issue

Donald Trump mangled the facts when he claimed that the Obama administration is “letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.”

People who come into the country illegally are not permitted to vote, and the consequences for doing so are severe. Immigrants must reside in the U.S. legally for several years before they can apply for citizenship through the 10-step naturalization process, which can take several more months.

Trump made his claim at a meeting with the National Border Patrol Council on Oct. 7. His remark came after Art Del Cueto, a vice president of the border patrol agents’ union, said criminals apprehended at the border were being set “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,” Yahoo News reported.

According to news reports, when Trump asked why this was happening, Del Cueto said, “So they can go ahead and vote before the election.”

“Big statement, fellas,” Trump said. “That’s huge. … They’re letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.”

Immigration experts said Trump appeared to be conflating separate immigration issues.

CNN reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been working overtime this year to handle a spike in naturalization applications — which typically happens during an election year. On Sept. 21, Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson wrote a letter to Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, expressing concern about efforts to “rush” naturalization applications to allow more voters in the upcoming presidential election.

Grassley and Johnson letter, Sept. 21: We write to express serious concern about an apparent push by your department to rush the adjudication of naturalization applications before the upcoming presidential election, presumably in an attempt to create as many new citizen voters as possible.

The senators’ concern was piqued by the discovery of an internal agency email from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official encouraging workers to put in overtime to adjudicate as many naturalization applications as possible “due to the election year needs.”

A USCIS official said the agency was trying to keep up with a larger-than-expected spike in naturalization applications this year.

“USCIS’s goal is to process applications for naturalization within five to seven months, regardless of external events such as elections,” the official said. “USCIS anticipated that there would be a spike in applications this year, as we usually see in an election year, but the increase in N-400 applications has exceeded expectations. USCIS has detailed staff to offices experiencing increased workloads and has authorized overtime for many offices.”

The official added: “USCIS certainly encourages our naturalized citizens to be active participants in our democracy. However, like other citizens, no new U.S. citizen is required to register to vote, or participate in any election. The issue at hand is our desire to ensure naturalization applications are processed within our normal times.”

Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said the demand for naturalization is coming from immigrants in the country legally who are eligible for naturalization. Applications usually spike in election years, she said, because those eligible to become citizens want to vote in presidential elections. Wait times for adjudication of naturalization applications typically are about four months, but those applications are now taking about seven to eight months, she said.

Trump’s comment that the administration is “letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote” only muddies the issue.

The comment suggests that people coming into the country illegally are voting. But Pierce said there’s very little evidence for that, in part because the disincentives are enormous. It is an illegal offense for an unauthorized immigrant to vote — a deportable offense that makes a person permanently inadmissible for return to the U.S., she said.

As for letting people “pour into the country,” Pierce noted that illegal immigration has stagnated, or even declined, as the estimated population of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. dipped from 12.2 million in 2007 to 11.2 million in 2013.

The Pew Research Center estimated that the number of people living illegally in the U.S. was 11.1 million in 2014, down from 11.7 million in 2008. Similarly, the Center for Migration Studies estimated a drop from 12 million in 2008 to 10.9 million in 2014. (See Figure 1, page 3.)

Among those who are seeking naturalization, they would have to have been legal permanent residents (green card holders) for at least five years, or for three years if they are married to a U.S. citizen.

Anyone coming into the country today could not be eligible for naturalization for years, let alone be eligible to vote in the November election. In fact, even among those who are currently eligible to apply for naturalization, if they applied today, their application would not be processed in time to vote in the presidential election, Pierce said.

The number of people becoming legal permanent residents (getting a green card) has been generally decreasing under Obama, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. The number of naturalization applications approved each year was also generally declining under Obama, though the numbers were much lower in the 1980s.

Not shown on the above chart is that the number of naturalization applications has spiked in the last year. CNN reported that “US Citizenship and Immigration Services show a 14.5 percent jump in naturalization applications in June-December of 2015 compared with the same six months in the previous year.”

As the chart shows, there is typically a spike in naturalizations in presidential election years — notably in 1996 and 2008, which were the only years on record (dating to 1910) when the number of immigrants who became naturalized citizens exceeded 1 million.