Federal appropriations law generally prohibits hiring non-citizens to work for the federal government, but in recent census cycles the bureau has requested a waiver and the Office of Personnel Management has approved it.
However, in a meeting Tuesday, Census staff were told that non-citizens would not be hired, according to a person who works in the Department of Commerce and is familiar with Census Bureau matters.
The change, if implemented, comes amid fears that the 2020 count is under siege by an administration which has proposed other changes that could depress the count among minority and immigrant groups.
Among bureau staff the announcement was seen as a political move, the source said, adding, "The feeling was this is going to happen, and yes, it's because of the administration."
In a strong job market, when the bureau is already having trouble meeting recruiting goals, "to go further out of our way to restrict who we can hire, no one within the Census would do this; it doesn't make any sense," the source said.
The Office of Personnel Management referred a request for comment to the Census Bureau, which did not respond to questions about whether a waiver was sought or denied for the upcoming decennial count.
Experts have warned that the 2020 Census could be compromised by insufficient funding from Congress and by proposed new questions about citizenship and immigration status that could depress response rates and lead to an undercount of immigrant communities where many feel targeted by administration policies.
"They very much need to recruit people who will be the most trusted in communities that we know will be most fearful of participating in the Census, and sometimes those voices are not citizens," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. "If true, I think it would be very disappointing and problematic not to allow the Census Bureau to hire non-citizens."
An internal review of the bureau's recruiting and hiring program for the 2010 count recommended that for 2020 the bureau continue to evaluate the use of waivers "to ensure that hiring flexibilities are used strategically to fill key census positions with employees with critical skills and increase the applicant pool in hard-to-recruit areas."
In the 2010 count, 3,487, or a fraction of one percent, of the 857,185 workers hired were non-citizens, the report said.
But the need to hire non-citizens will likely be far more acute in 2020 than it was ten years earlier, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit that promotes the participation of Latinos in civic life.
"In 2010, with the Great Recession keeping us at a significantly high unemployment rate, it was like shooting fish in a barrel to hire well-skilled unemployed U.S. citizens" who had the requisite language skills and familiarity with immigrant communities, Vargas said. "To be making this decision now seems to be extremely premature because we don't know what the workforce environment will be."
If unemployment continues to be low, he said, barring non-citizens from being hired will be "tying another hand behind the bureau's back in terms of limiting the resources it's going to need in order to carry out the 2020 Census."