Trump’s new plan to hijack the census will imperil America’s future

A person holds census information at an event where U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) spoke at a Census Town Hall at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, New York City, U.S., February 22, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Editor's note:

This post was updated on August 10 based on updated data.

If Donald Trump winds up as a one-term president—which current polling suggests will be the case—he seems determined to go out with a final blow in his war against the nation’s changing demography. This time, he has set his sights on the Census Bureau, as it struggles to overcome the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and complete its once-in-a-decade headcount that is vital to our democracy.

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration issued a memorandum seeking to remove undocumented immigrants (“illegal aliens” in the memo’s words) from the census headcount that serves as the basis for reapportioning House of Representatives members among states. Then, on Monday, the Census Bureau announced that they would be cutting short the headcount by a month. In both cases, these changes will result in an undercount of demographic groups that are not part of Trump’s political base.

The plan to omit undocumented immigrants for congressional reapportionment falls in line with the administration’s failed proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which was struck down by the Supreme Court last year. After the ruling, Trump ordered the development of a database—using federal sources such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration—which could be used to identify undocumented immigrants.

Trump’s memorandum is already being challenged in court on the basis that it flies in the face of the U.S. Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment, which indicates that congressional reapportionment should be based on the count of “whole numbers of persons” in each state. It is also questionable if Trump’s “illegal alien” database can be accurately compiled by the time reapportionment numbers are required.

A new analysis by demographers Dudley L. Poston, Jr. and Teresa A. Sullivan estimates that if Trump were to succeed in subtracting undocumented immigrants from congressional reapportionment, the blue states of California and New Jersey would lose seats, as would the diverse, near-swing state of Texas.

Beyond the impact on congressional reapportionment, Trump’s memo sends the signal that his administration will continue to attack undocumented immigrants and their families. As would have been the case with a citizenship question, this will have the effect of making immigrant and mixed-status households fearful of being counted in the census. This fear has been well documented in surveys by the Census Bureau, the Urban Institute, and others. Census Bureau research has shown that between 5.8% and 8% of households containing noncitizens would not respond to the census if it included a citizenship question. The new Trump directive could drive similar fears in such households, which are heavily represented in Latino or Hispanic and Asian American populations.

The second last-minute surprise was a White House-influenced decision by the Census Bureau to cut back on their original plan to extend the census count’s follow-up period to October 31. The original plan—announced on April 13 by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham—was carefully conceived to take public safety concerns into account amid the COVID-19 pandemic, making necessary adjustments to ensure the best possible follow-up process for census non-respondents. Given this extension, it also requested that Congress approve a delay in the mandated reporting of census results to the president from December 31, 2020 to April 30, 2021.

Despite initial support from Trump and the House of Representatives, the Census Bureau—apparently under pressure from the White House—has abruptly shortened its timeline. On August 3, the Bureau announced its intention to end all follow-up activities by September 30 and report the results to the president by December 31. This move has been criticized by many experts, including four former Census Bureau directors who served under Republican and Democratic presidents. It also contradicts past statements by Bureau personnel that emphasized the impossibility of completing the census with enough time to report results to the president by the end of 2020.

The now-rushed end date—reportedly to accommodate Trump’s insistence to have reapportionment numbers while he is still in office—places a huge burden on the Bureau’s staff. This involves effectively enumerating hard-to-count populations who have not responded to earlier requests, those who have moved during the pandemic, the homeless, residents of dormitories, rural residents, and Native American reservations that have always taken extra efforts to reach. The New York Times estimates that during this period, 60 million households will need to be contacted, in comparison to 47 million at this stage of the 2010 census.

Racial minorities are a large part of this hard-to-count population, and they will likely be undercounted even worse than in earlier censuses if Trump’s directives remain. These include Latino or Hispanic, Black, American Indian, and Asian American populations. If previous censuses are a guide, members of these groups who are low-income, renters, small children, young adults, or foreign-born will be particularly hard to reach. Moreover, given the time crunch, the Census Bureau may be forced to statistically estimate (to a far larger degree than in earlier censuses) information for households that cannot be contacted. This process can lead to even greater undercounts of racial minorities compared to whites.

The undercounting of people of color would have long-lasting effects on the nation because of the many ways the census will be used over the next decade.

The undercounting of people of color would have long-lasting effects on the nation because of the many ways the census will be used over the next decade. In addition to reapportioning members of the House of Representatives, census results are used to draw legislative districts within states and allocate trillions of dollars in state and federal funds. The census also forms the sampling frame for thousands of surveys that impact decisionmaking over the next 10 years. All of these uses have long-term effects on public and private investments in communities—and particularly, communities of color.

The U.S. now stands at a pivotal period with respect to race. Recent analyses show that the nation’s younger generations are the most racially diverse ever, with nonwhite racial groups accounting for more than half of all births and persons ages under 16. Because the white population is aging and declining in number among younger age groups, it is important that the 2020 census reflects the full diversity of the country’s youth. This will ensure that younger people of color and their families get their due in how political decisions are made, how funding gets allocated, and where schools, housing, hospitals, and employment sites are located. Investments in this young, diverse generation are critical for their—and the nation’s—future. We will all pay a huge price if they are undercounted in a flawed census.

If it isn’t stopped, the Trump administration’s last-ditch effort to hijack the 2020 census will have devastating, long-term consequences for the nation, especially its youth. Let us hope that Congress and the judicial system intervene in time to save this vital government institution.