Trump’s ci­ti­zen­ship plan faces lo­gis­ti­cal, le­gal lim­its

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Colleen Long, Mark Sher­man and Ri­cardo Alonso-Zal­divar

WASHINGTON — Af­ter fail­ing to get his ci­ti­zen­ship ques­tion on the cen­sus, Pres­i­dent Donald Trump now says his fall­back plan will pro­vide an even more ac­cu­rate count — de­ter­min­ing the ci­ti­zen­ship of 90% of the pop­u­la­tion “or more.”

But his plan will likely be lim­ited by lo­gis­ti­cal hur­dles and le­gal restric­tions.

Trump wants to dis­till a mas­sive trove of data across seven gov­ern­ment agen­cies — and pos­si­bly across 50 states. It’s far from clear how such vary­ing sys­tems can be mined, com­bined and compared.

He di­rected the Com­merce Depart­ment, which man­ages the cen­sus, to form a work­ing group.

“The lo­gis­ti­cal bar­ri­ers are sig­nif­i­cant, if not in­sur­mount­able,” said Paul Light, a se­nior fel­low of Gov­er­nance Stud­ies at New York Uni­ver­sity. “The fed­eral gov­ern­ment does not in­vest, and hasn’t been in­vest­ing for a long time, in the kind of data sys­tems and re­cruit­ment of experts that this kind of data­base con­struc­tion would re­quire.”

Trump says he aims to answer how many peo­ple are here il­le­gally — though there al­ready are re­cent es­ti­mates — and pos­si­bly use such in­for­ma­tion to divvy up con­gres­sional seats based on ci­ti­zen­ship. It’s also a way for Trump to show his base that he’s not back­ing down — even as he’s had to back down — from a bat­tle over the ques­tion on his sig­na­ture topic.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion faced chal­lenges last year when it was tasked by a fed­eral judge with quickly cre­at­ing a sys­tem to track mi­grant fam­i­lies that had been sep­a­rated by immigratio­n of­fi­cials. They found agency sys­tems weren’t com­pat­i­ble.

Trump’s plan is aimed at again cir­cum­vent­ing le­gal chal­lenges on an immigratio­n re­lated mat­ter, as courts have barred him from in­quir­ing about ci­ti­zen­ship on the 2020 cen­sus. But it could spark fur­ther le­gal action, de­pend­ing on what his ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to do with the ci­ti­zen­ship in­for­ma­tion.

His ex­ec­u­tive or­der an­nounced Thurs­day re­quires highly de­tailed in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing national-level files of all law­ful per­ma­nent residents, Cus­toms and Bor­der ar­rival and de­par­ture data and So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion master ben­e­fi­ciary records. That is in ad­di­tion to in­for­ma­tion on Med­i­caid and chil­dren’s health sys­tems and refugee and asy­lum visas.

The or­der states that “gen­er­at­ing ac­cu­rate data con­cern­ing the to­tal num­ber of cit­i­zens, non-cit­i­zens and il­le­gal aliens in the coun­try has noth­ing to do with en­forc­ing immigratio­n laws against par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als,” and that in­for­ma­tion would be used “solely to pro­duce sta­tis­tics” and not to “bring immigratio­n en­force­ment ac­tions against par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als.”

Dale Ho, the di­rec­tor of the ACLU’s Vot­ing Rights Project who ar­gued the ci­ti­zen­ship ques­tion case at the Supreme Court, said the main pri­vacy con­cern now would be dis­clo­sure of in­di­vid­u­als’ ci­ti­zen­ship status.

Fed­eral law bars the Cen­sus Bureau from dis­clos­ing an in­di­vid­ual’s re­sponses to the cen­sus.

But Ho said that if the bureau can pro­duce ci­ti­zen­ship in­for­ma­tion in small geo­graph­i­cal bites, it could inadverten­tly ex­pose a person’s ci­ti­zen­ship status.

The bureau has meth­ods in place that are de­signed to pre­vent such dis­clo­sures, but “we don’t know enough yet to know the answers,” Ho said.

Sa­man­tha Ar­tiga, a Med­i­caid ex­pert with the non­par­ti­san Kaiser Fam­ily Foundation, is con­cerned that Trump’s di­rec­tive will dis­cour­age some im­mi­grants from ap­ply­ing for health ben­e­fits they’d be en­ti­tled to.

“It is likely that this pol­icy will fur­ther en­hance al­ready height­ened fears among fam­i­lies about ap­ply­ing for Med­i­caid or the Chil­dren’s Heath In­sur­ance Pro­gram for law­fully present im­mi­grants or cit­i­zen chil­dren in im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, po­ten­tially lead­ing to fall-offs in cov­er­age,” she said.

But to some de­gree, Trump’s di­rec­tive re­flects what was al­ready be­ing put into place be­fore the con­tro­versy about a ci­ti­zen­ship ques­tion on the cen­sus. The Cen­sus Bureau had stressed that it could pro­duce bet­ter ci­ti­zen­ship data with­out adding the ques­tion and had rec­om­mended com­bin­ing in­for­ma­tion from the an­nual Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey with records held by other fed­eral agen­cies that al­ready in­clude ci­ti­zen­ship records. The sur­vey polls 3.5 mil­lion U.S. house­holds and in­cludes ques­tions about ci­ti­zen­ship.

“It’s a re­treat back to what he should have done from the be­gin­ning,” said Ken­neth Pre­witt, a for­mer Cen­sus Bureau di­rec­tor.

Trans­fer­ring the data from other agen­cies to the Cen­sus Bureau isn’t dif­fi­cult, but some, like Cus­toms arrivals data, con­tain hun­dreds of mil­lions of en­tries and it will take time to com­pile, maybe years.

Pre­witt said gov­ern­ment records tend to be highly ac­cu­rate for some pur­poses and less so for others.

It’s es­sen­tial for the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, for in­stance, to know the age of Amer­i­cans ac­cu­rately, but it isn’t as con­cerned with ad­dresses.

MICHELLE R. SMITH/AP 2018

Pres­i­dent Trump’s fall­back plan to get a ci­ti­zen­ship ques­tion on the 2020 cen­sus in­cludes ac­quir­ing and break­ing down mas­sive amounts of data from seven gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

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