President Donald Trump

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In killing citizenship question, Trump adopts Census Bureau’s preferred solution to a thorny problem

President Donald Trump’s decision this afternoon to abandon plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census and instead rely on existing government records to generate citizenship statistics matches the Census Bureau’s preferred option for dealing with the politically explosive issue. It’s also a win for those who have wanted to keep such a charged question off the decennial head count.

“This is option C,” says former Census Director John Thompson, referring to a March 2018 memo in which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross spelled out several options for developing a citizenship tally, and gave his rationale for deciding to include the question on the count that will begin on 1 April 2020. Option C “is what the Census Bureau proposed to Secretary Ross,” adds Thompson, who stepped down in June 2017, a few months after Ross began clandestine efforts to get the Department of Justice to request the question. Ross eventually chose what he called option D, a combination of using information already in government agency files, known as administrative records, along with a yes/no question about citizenship on the census questionnaire sent to U.S. households.

The Supreme Court, however, blocked Ross’s decision, saying he had violated administrative law by providing a “contrived” rather than a “genuine” explanation for why he wanted to add the question. Critics of the question say it would have prompted many people living in the United States to decline to answer the census, leading to an undercount of the population, and was motivated by a desire to reduce the political power of regions that tend to support Democratic candidates.

Today, speaking at a hastily arranged one-way news conference in which he took no questions, Trump said he will issue an executive order telling every federal agency to “immediately” provide the Department of Commerce with “all requested records regarding the number of citizens and noncitizens in our country.” He said the goal is to generate “an accurate count of how many citizens, noncitizens, and illegal aliens are in the United States of America. Not too much to ask.”

Census experts say the agency should be able to satisfy the president’s request to develop data on the first two categories—citizens and noncitizens. And the Census Bureau already has agreements with a number of federal and state agencies that allow it to access administrative records that include some citizenship information, according to this 2018 analysis by bureau researchers. But using administrative records to determine the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States is not possible, the experts say. And that’s a good thing, believes Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

“What this administration really wanted was a tally of those who are undocumented,” says Santos, who is also president-elect of the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Virginia. “But that’s not going to happen. They will fly under the radar.” As a result, he says, “Now, they can participate in the census without fear” of political repercussions.

It’s also good news for Census Bureau, he adds. Extracting the agency from the bitterly partisan national debate over immigration should allow it to do its job of carrying out a complete and accurate census, he says.

Civil rights groups opposing the question also hailed the president’s decision as a victory but say they haven’t given up their fight against the administration’s policies. “This is a welcome reprieve of his partisan agenda, and a win for all communities,” says Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, D.C. “[But] we remain on guard to combat any attempts to sabotage a fair and accurate count.”

This is a developing story.