Census Bureau Stops Work On Trump's Request For Unauthorized Immigrant Count

Jan 13, 2021
Originally published on January 15, 2021 8:26 pm

Updated Friday at 9:26 p.m. ET

The U.S. Census Bureau has halted all work on President Trump's directive to produce a state-by-state count of unauthorized immigrants that would have been used to alter a key set of census numbers, NPR has learned.

Senior career officials at the bureau instructed the internal team assigned to carry out Trump's presidential memo to stand down and cease their work immediately on Tuesday night, according to a bureau employee who spoke to NPR on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation in the workplace for speaking out.

The move by civil servants effectively ends the bureau's participation in Trump's bid to make an unprecedented change to who is counted in the 2020 census numbers that will be used to reallocate each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes for the next decade. According to the 14th Amendment, those counts must include the "whole number of persons in each state."

In a court filing Friday, Justice Department attorneys confirmed that none of the data Trump would need to alter the congressional apportionment counts would be released before Trump's term ends. It is "impossible" now for the administration to carry out Trump's plan, DOJ attorney Brad Rosenberg told U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh during a virtual court conference for a National Urban League-led lawsuit over the census schedule.

The president's memo, which was issued in July, was found to be unlawful, unconstitutional or both by three lower courts last year before the Supreme Court ruled in December that it was too early for any court to weigh in because the case is "riddled with contingencies and speculation."

Trump's effort has already been hampered by schedule delays stemming from irregularities in the census records that, in addition to the coronavirus pandemic, have resulted in the bureau extending the time for running quality checks and pushing back the release for the first set of census results.

This week, a Justice Department attorney informed Koh, the federal judge hearing the lawsuit about the census schedule, that the state population counts needed for reapportioning House seats and electoral votes are not expected to be ready until March 6, more than a month into the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has condemned Trump's attempt to exclude unauthorized immigrants.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that led a lawsuit against Trump's memo, is calling for Biden to "formally rescind" Trump's policy after becoming president.

"Doing so would send the message that under our Constitution, everyone in this country counts," Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement.

The Census Bureau's public information office has not responded to NPR's request for comment.

On Tuesday, another Trump administration push for data about unauthorized immigrants, as well as other noncitizens in the U.S., suffered a blow after the bureau's internal watchdog issued a memo revealing that the agency's Trump-appointed director had pressured employees to produce a report by Friday.

According to a memo by Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson, multiple whistleblowers at the bureau reported that they are concerned Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham was trying to rush out a data report on noncitizens that would be "statistically indefensible" and could be "misinterpreted, misused, or otherwise tarnish the Bureau's reputation."

It remains unclear what exactly the Trump administration would do with the data report on noncitizens. Gustafson asked Dillingham to provide a written explanation.

In a reply on Wednesday, Dillingham said he told career employees to "stand down" on working on the technical report "immediately" after learning of staffers' concerns through the inspector general's memo.

Dillingham said that the report was a "mechanism" to assess the bureau's progress in fulfilling an executive order Trump issued in 2019 after the Supreme Court blocked the administration's effort to add a citizenship question to census forms. That order calls for the bureau to use government records on citizenship from other federal agencies and some states to produce "data on the number of citizens, non-citizens, and illegal aliens" in the U.S.

In response to NPR's reporting on Dillingham's directive, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the top Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds the bureau, issued a tweet on Tuesday criticizing Trump for making "a mission out of manipulating the census." The senator said she will work with the Biden administration to "repair the damage Trump caused."

Leaders of civil rights groups — including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC — are calling for Dillingham's immediate resignation. His appointment at the bureau is set to continue past the end of the Trump administration and until the end of this year.

"After considering Director Dillingham's efforts to undermine the agency's core standards of data quality in order to carry out a political agenda," the organizations' leaders — Wade Henderson, Arturo Vargas and John Yang — said in a joint statement, "we believe that he can no longer carry out his duties as the leader of our nation's most prestigious statistical agency."

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NPR has learned of a major change to President Trump's plan to alter the 2020 census results. The bureau is no longer working on a count of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. The president had previously said he wanted that count to try to change representation in Congress and the Electoral College for the next decade. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang broke this story and joins us now from New York.

Hey, Hansi.


CHANG: So I understand that you confirmed this news with one of your sources today. What exactly did the source tell you?

WANG: I learned that on Tuesday night, senior career officials at the Census Bureau instructed a team of civil servants working on Trump's project to stop their work immediately. This is according to a bureau employee who does not want to be named for fear of retaliation at work. And this means the bureau has effectively ended its participation in Trump's presidential memo about making an unprecedented change to who is counted in census numbers that determine each state's share of congressional seats, Electoral College votes, by excluding unauthorized immigrants, even though, according to the 14th Amendment, those census numbers must include the, quote, "whole number of persons in each state."

CHANG: So do you think this is really the end of the Trump administration's push to change these census numbers?

WANG: I don't know, Ailsa. I'm still watching to see what happens up until the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has...

CHANG: Yeah.

WANG: ...Condemned Trump's plan. And, you know, Trump has already run into major scheduling trouble. The Census Bureau's pushed back the projected release date for the census numbers Trump wants to alter to early March. And meantime, the Census Bureau is trying to put together new state population counts from last year's census.

CHANG: What's behind these delays in getting these numbers out?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau's discovered irregularities in the census records that they need to fix first. And career officials say these are routine irregularities. After the census finishes gathering information from around the country, it usually takes months to run quality checks to make sure no one is counted more than once or in the wrong place. And the pandemic has delayed the start of those quality checks.

What's odd is that we've also learned that Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee, put out a directive to make a data report about noncitizens a No. 1 priority at the bureau. The director has since put out a statement - a letter to the Commerce Department inspector general saying that's no longer the case and has told employees to stand down.

But that has caused a lot of concern from leading advocates of the census, including those at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights who are calling for Dillingham to resign. They're concerned that Dillingham tried to divert bureau's resources for what they see as a partisan agenda to get data about noncitizens. And whistleblowers at the bureau are concerned that they don't have enough time to produce a report like that. And information, if it were put out, could have been misused.

CHANG: Well, what do we know about how Trump officials could use this data report about noncitizens?

WANG: Not much. At this point, the director in his statement said that this data report would have helped him form this ongoing project to produce a count of noncitizens that President Trump ordered from an earlier executive order. But again, it's important to keep in mind here that a senior bureau official warned that any data that could be rushed out now would be statistically indefensible.

CHANG: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census-related.

Thank you, Hansi.

WANG: You're welcome, Ailsa.

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