NEW YORK — Citing a Border Patrol union leader, Donald Trump said Friday that agents have been told to allow immigrants into the United States illegally "so they can vote in the election." But he offered no evidence to support his most recent claim that presidential voting may be tainted by fraud.
In an immigration round table with Trump, Art Del Cueto, a vice president for the National Border Patrol Council, told the candidate Friday that officials in the U.S. are being directed to ignore criminal histories of immigrants and speed up citizenship applications.
"That's a massive story," Trump responded, saying it would be ignored by the media. "They are letting people pour into the country so they can go ahead and vote."
However, union spokesman Shawn Moran, who was in New York with Del Cueto, said later in a telephone interview that several issues were conflated during the round table discussion.
Border Patrol agents have indeed seen an increase in attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, Moran said. But Moran did not say any border agents had been ordered to let those immigrants in so they could vote in November.
The two issues are sometimes linked in a misleading fashion, and the brief exchange between Del Cueto and Trump underscored that.
Neither Del Cueto nor Trump offered evidence to back up the idea immigration officials are taking action to allow people who have recently crossed the border to cast ballots on Election Day. Newly admitted immigrants are not permitted to vote, a right that is reserved for citizens.
The process of achieving citizenship takes years. Citizenship applications are handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, not the Border Patrol.
There is no evidence that USCIS officials have been directed to quickly approve citizenship applications, though some lawmakers have asked the agency to address such reports.
Trump has repeatedly said he fears the election will be rigged and has made a hard-line stance on immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. His latest provocative claim comes as Trump and Clinton are preparing for their second debate, a town-hall style confrontation Sunday night. It's a critical moment for Trump, who after a rough performance in last week's debate is tasked with showing he can stick to his campaign message and steer clear of comments likely to alienate moderate voters.
Trump and Clinton have been treading somewhat lightly on the campaign trail in recent days, as Hurricane Matthew barreled down on swing state Florida.
The pause was a reminder of the possibilities and perils of campaigning during a crisis. Plenty of presidents and presidential hopefuls before them have used similar natural disasters to showcase their leadership — or their shortcomings — in ways that can change the trajectory of the race. Both Clinton and Trump appeared to be moving carefully, for now.
The campaigns spent Thursday moving staff and volunteers, closing offices and canceling events in the path of the storm, as many Floridians heeded calls to evacuate. In Florida, the Clinton campaign pulled its ads from the Weather Channel, amid criticism about insensitivity, and the Trump team pulled its negative TV ads.
"Even if you want to do politics, no one is there to listen," said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who directed or advised Barack Obama's campaigns in the state in 2008 and 2012.
Both the campaigns and state officials were watching closely how the storm might impact Floridian votes. The storm arrived five days before the voter registration deadline, prompting the Clinton campaign to ask state officials for an extension. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Republican who leads a super PAC working to defeat Clinton, refused.
"Everyone has had a lot of time to register," he said.
Officials were also eyeing the vote-by-mail operation. Vote-by-mail ballots were due to be sent this week, leaving the potential for ballots to arrive just as voters evacuate their homes. At least half of Florida voters typically cast ballots early, either by mail or in person.
Officials said they hope that any disruption to voting would be less severe than with Superstorm Sandy, which struck New Jersey and New York just before the 2012 presidential election and kept many voters away from polls.
Sandy's greater political impact, however, may have been the way President Barack Obama used the moment to his advantage. Obama quickly surveyed the aftermath, receiving a warm welcome from Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and promised millions in aid.
Trump, who is trying to recapture momentum lost in a rocky first debate, practiced his skills in public Thursday night at a town hall in Sandown, New Hampshire. Although his aides called the event a dry run for Sunday, Trump dismissed the notion.
"I said, 'Forget debate prep.' I mean, give me a break," said Trump, who mocked Clinton for spending days preparing. "She's resting. She wants to build up her energy for Sunday night. And you know what? That's fine. But the narrative is so foolish."