Trump’s citizenship plan faces logistical, legal limits
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.
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.