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Trump directs his administration to collect citizenship data another way, after census effort fails

President Donald Trump is directing his administration to collect citizenship data by alternate means after his bid to have a question on the subject added to the 2020 census failed.

The president announced Thursday that he would instead issue an executive order eliminating “long-standing obstacles to data sharing” and mandating various departments and agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, turn over existing databases to compile the numbers.

“They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately. We will utilize these vast federal databases to gain a full, complete, and accurate count of the noncitizen population,” he said, speaking to reporters from the Rose Garden. “…We have great knowledge in many of our agencies. We will leave no stone unturned.”

Trump said doing so would mean a “more complete count” and would be “far more accurate” than asking a single question on a nationwide survey. As many have since pointed out, the process of scraping existing databases for citizenship information was recommended by the Census Bureau itself earlier this year.

Despite Thursday’s announcement, the president remained stubborn on the census issue, claiming, “There used to be a time when you could proudly declare I am a citizen of the United States. Now they are trying to erase the very existence of a very important word and a very important thing, citizenship.”

Trump claimed that attempts to prevent a question from being added to the census “erode the rights of the American citizen” and were “very unfair to our country.”

The decision comes as the Trump administration concedes its efforts to try and have the question included on the upcoming decennial census. That attempt hit a wall late last month when the Supreme Court, weighing one of three lawsuits against the question, blocked the administration from doing so, saying it had offered a shoddy explanation for the move.

“Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation [the administration] gave for his decision,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote at the time. Roberts said the administration’s argument “seems to have been contrived.”

As Politico notes, the decision meant that the case would be sent back to the lower courts, where three federal judges have blocked the question.

A citizenship question has not been included in the census since 1950.

Trump previously floated the idea of using executive action to add the citizenship question to the census — which began printing without the question earlier in July. According to ABC News, the president was urged on by his officials to do so, and it was unclear what prompted them to change course.

The Trump administration has tried to add a citizenship question to the decennial census since its earliest days, according to leaked government documents and internal emails.

Although officials initially claimed in a December 2017 letter that their reasoning was to better enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a trove of documents obtained by Common Cause from the late GOP gerrymandering mastermind Thomas Hofeller — unearthed by his daughter and submitted as court filings in two of the lawsuits — revealed the purpose of adding such a question may have allegedly had nefarious roots.

The documents revealed that Hofeller had written a study in 2015 that demonstrated how adding a citizenship question to the census would be beneficial to Republicans and “non-Hispanic whites,” allowing officials to gerrymander districts in their favor.

Critics have long said that adding a citizenship question would lead to a massive undercount of black and Latinx communities, as many people would decline to respond out of fear of immigration enforcement.

The administration quickly denied that Hofeller’s study had any impact on its decision to add the question to the census, saying plaintiffs in the suit could not prove any sort of communication or link between the GOP operative and Commerce officials.

Then, in June, a series of emails between Hofeller and a high-ranking Census Bureau official surfaced.

As ThinkProgress previously reported,

On January 6 that year, [Christa Jones, current chief of staff to Ron Jarmin, the bureau’s deputy director] sent Hofeller an email with a link to the Federal Register notice asking for public comments on changes to census questions. “Public comments highly useful in this context,” she wrote.

In a follow-up email the next day, Jones wrote, “This can also be an opportunity to mention citizenship as well.”

Hofeller wrote his study on the citizenship question just months later.

The discovery of the email, plaintiffs argued, disproved the government’s claim it had only added the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

“They eliminate any colorable doubt about the link between Hofeller and government employees involved in the citizenship question approval process,” wrote attorneys from Covington & Burling, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).

The Trump administration reiterated to ThinkProgress in an email that month that neither Hofeller nor his views influenced the decision to reinstate the citizenship question.

“The Secretary’s reason to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census was laid out in his 2018 decision memos,” a Commerce Department spokesperson wrote. “Plaintiffs’ new unproven narrative is as ridiculous as their previous ones. All of Plaintiffs’ conspiracy theories are outlandish and should be disregarded.”


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