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Steven Dillingham appeared before Congress yesterday wearing a special “2020 census” mask.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Census director dodges legislators’ questions about Trump memo on undocumented residents

Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham spent 2 hours yesterday trying not to take sides in a fiercely partisan debate over how the 2020 U.S. census will be used to determine representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. He largely succeeded, but some Democrats worried the nation’s largest statistical agency might pay a high price for his neutrality.

Dillingham was the star witness at a congressional hearing whose tone was set by its title: Counting Every Person: Safeguarding the 2020 Census Against the Trump administration’s Unconstitutional Attacks. But he demurred when asked repeatedly for his thoughts on a 21 July memo from President Donald Trump that orders the Census Bureau to exclude undocumented residents from its overall tally of each state’s population.

Democrats hoped Dillingham would agree with them that the memo violated the U.S. Constitution’s requirement to count every resident, regardless of their immigration status. Republicans wanted him to endorse their argument that House seats should be allocated only among those who can influence the political process, by which they meant U.S. citizens. But Dillingham didn’t endorse either stance.

“I am not in a position in which I can express my opinions with regard to the policy, the history, and certainly not the legal analysis [behind the president’s memo],” he told Representative Carolyn Maloney (D–NY), who chairs the House oversight committee that held the hearing. “My job is to execute the 2020 census, and our goal is a complete and accurate count.”

The panel’s top Republican, Representative James Comer (KY), did no better when he sought to gain Dillingham’s support for Trump’s plan to remove undocumented residents from the 2020 census enumeration before coming up with the state totals used to divvy up the 435 House seats.

“So you are confident we can get an accurate count of legal citizens, for purposes of apportionment?” Comer asked Dillingham.

“I am confident that we will analyze the data we have,” Dillingham replied, “and look at methodologies that might be employed for that purpose.” Translation: We haven’t decided whether it is technically possible to do what the president wants.

A deadline tango

Dillingham’s eagerness to paint himself as above the fray may be good politics. But it also meant acknowledging that the Trump administration has made key decisions affecting his agency and the 2020 census without consulting him. A particular bone of contention at yesterday’s hearing was his role in crafting a revised timeline for completing field operations to track down those who have yet to fill out the 2020 census questionnaire after the coronavirus pandemic forced the Census Bureau to suspend most activities in mid-March.

In April, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked Congress for a 4-month extension of the original 31 December deadline to deliver results for apportionment. In line with that revised schedule, Dillingham told legislators yesterday, the bureau plans to reopen all 248 field offices by 11 August and conclude field operations by the end of October.

In May, the House approved a coronavirus relief package that would authorize the extension. But this week’s proposal from Senate Republicans did not contain any such request, and there are media reports that administration officials now want the agency to shorten the time spent on follow-up canvassing, in order to meet the original 31 December deadline for delivering the results.

Democrats complained that Dillingham is being “whipsawed” by the administration and that the views of the Census Bureau’s career experts are being ignored. But when asked his opinion, Dillingham begged off.

“I understand that there were discussions [about a revised schedule], but I did not participate,” he told Representative John Sarbanes (D–MD). When Sarbanes pressed him to agree that returning to the 31 December deadline would force the bureau to move “too quickly” and result in a flawed count, Dillingham again demurred. “We certainly want a complete and accurate census,” he replied. But he ignored Sarbanes’s plea to tell legislators “how much time you need … for a robust result.”

Census advocates worry the apparent about-face by the White House has left Dillingham in a precarious position. “By failing to stand by the bureau’s conclusion that it needs an additional 4 months to complete census operations well and then conduct high-quality data improvement, processing, and tabulation, they essentially are forcing the bureau to rush all of this work,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional aide who closely follows census issues.

Lowenthal believes the administration’s “firm grip” on census operations is also tarnishing the agency’s reputation. “This is a sad day for the independence and integrity of a statistical agency highly respected the world over,” she says.

High political stakes

The relationship between Trump’s memo on excluding undocumented residents and the decennial census was also a fiercely debated topic at the hearing. Dillingham was more than willing to help Republican legislators make the point that any decision on whether to exclude undocumented residents from apportionment would not deter the Census Bureau from trying its best to count every resident for the overall tally. But four former census directors who also testified before the panel warned that it was impossible to separate the two counts, adding that Trump’s memo was likely to lower participation rates and degrade the quality of the data from the 2020 census.

“I am very concerned that the release of this directive will increase the fear of many in the hard-to-count community that their data will not be safe,” John Thompson, Dillingham’s predecessor, told the committee. “That is, there will be serious beliefs that their information will be given to immigration enforcement. The end result will most likely be increased undercounts of these populations.”

The process by which census officials will decide whether the agency can satisfy Trump’s order has also become a political football. Dillingham admitted to Maloney that the agency played no role in crafting Trump’s memo, adding credence to her contention that political appointees, not career professionals, were calling the shots. Even so, Representative Chip Roy (R–TX) suggested the agency was predisposed to reject the idea because its chief scientist, John Abowd, had testified in court against the administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

“Is John Abowd overseeing the special tabulation?” Roy asked Dillingham, using the agency’s terminology for the state apportionment tallies. Dillingham had said earlier that another senior career employee was leading the exercise, and that all members of the team had extensive experience with using the government records that would be needed to exclude noncitizens. But Roy insisted Abowd’s participation “was worth noting.”

For Democrats, Roy’s comments were another indication that they needed to “protect” Dillingham from political interference, as Sarbanes pledged to do. But some legislators told Dillingham he should be more vocal in defending his agency. Representative Jimmy Gomez (D–CA) was especially insistent after Dillingham refused to say whether he still “stands by” Ross’s earlier request for a 4-month extension. “I am not involved in any negotiations [with Congress] on extending the deadline,” Dillingham said.

“It seems you are not in control of the Census Bureau, and that political appointees are,” Gomez replied. “But your name will go down in history if this is the worst census ever conducted by the U.S. government. … You will be [held] responsible.”