The Ugly Subtext Of Trump’s Claim That ‘Illegal Immigrants Are Voting All Over The Country’

Donald Trump has recently added a new twist to his longstanding claim that the upcoming presidential election will be “rigged” against him. Earlier this month, Trump insisted that “they’re letting people pour into the country so they can go and vote.” Yesterday, Trump made the point even more explicitly, claiming that there is “tremendous voter fraud” in the U.S. and, specifically, “illegal immigrants are voting all over the country.”

The unsubstantiated claim that undocumented immigrants are illegally voting in order to swing elections for Democrats has long been a key claim of both the anti-immigrant movement and the movement to enact restrictive voting laws.

True the Vote, a Tea Party “election integrity” group, warned earlier this year of a “flood of illegal voters” casting ballots in the 2016 election, which it tied to efforts in some areas to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses.

Last year, former Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed that the continuance of President Obama’s executive actions deferring deportation for some undocumented immigrants would ensure that “a Democrat likely will be elected president in 2016” because it would lead to “fraudulently directed efforts to get illegal aliens to the 2016 voting booth.” Last month, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, conflated efforts to restore voting rights to people who have served time in jail for felonies with a claim that “those who are illegally here and show no regard for the law” are unlawfully voting.

Rosemary Jenks of the leading anti-immigrant group NumbersUSA made a similar argument earlier this year, when she said, “So we have this situation where essentially Democrats look at all the people around the world, the billions of them, as potential Democratic voters in the United States. So if they can get here, the Democrats will do whatever they can to make sure they can stay and eventually become citizens and vote—you know, well, whether or not they’re citizens.”

In a 2011 report on efforts to curtail voting rights, we laid out even more examples:

Undocumented immigrants are another frequent target of voter fraud accusations, with Tea Party and anti-immigrant groups often alleging that the Democratic Party is working to help undocumented immigrants vote illegally. In Arizona last year, Republican congressional candidate Jesse Kelly said that Democrats were “busing” in Mexicans to illegally vote for his opponent Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly claimed to have video to corroborate his charges but never released it. Election officials said they had no records of undocumented immigrants voting.

William Gheen of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC told Fox News that “the Obama administration is doing everything it can to make sure as many illegal aliens vote in 2010 although that is a violation of federal law.” One Arizona anti-immigrant group sent out an email before the election warning that undocumented immigrants were on the verge of “stealing the election”: “Our grassroots army of VOTER FRAUD PREVENTION VOLUNTEERS will stand vigilant across the nation. We will be the first and strongest line of defense to ensure that only legal citizens vote on November 2nd.”

There is no evidence of undocumented immigrants voting in any significant numbers. An Arizona Republic investigation in 2013 found two such cases in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, in the previous eight years. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that an undocumented immigrant would put themselves at great risk by showing up to cast a fraudulent ballot.

Instead, these baseless claims about undocumented immigrants voting speak to an underlying fear behind both the anti-immigrant and the voter suppression movements: the fear of demographic change and the increasing influence of legal non-white voters in elections.

Jenks’ comment—in which she seemed to take almost equal issue to naturalized immigrants legally voting as to undocumented immigrants voting illegally—speaks to this fear. Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas and a leading advocate of both restrictive immigration and voting laws, also hinted at this in 2014 when he complained that through immigration reform, Democrats are “replacing American voters with newly legalized aliens.” Kobach also just so happens to be advising Trump on immigration policy. Ann Coulter claimed last year that Americans are “being outvoted by the millions upon millions of foreigners Democrats have brought in to block vote for the Democrats.”

Anti-immigrant leaders frequently suggest that even naturalized citizens, including the formerly undocumented immigrants who would earn citizenship through immigration reform, are still  illegitimate voters and part of a Democratic plot to rig elections. Gun Owners of America’s Larry Pratt has even said that if he met a formerly undocumented immigrant who earned citizenship, he would “come and take that voter card right out of their hand and rip it up in front of their face.”

This isn’t about fraudulent voting or a rigged election. It’s about fear of the changing demographics of the electorate.

Instead of trying to appeal to a wider swathe of Americans, Trump and his allies are simply pretending that those outside their base aren’t Americans at all—and, in the process, backing laws that make it harder for many Americans to vote.