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Fact-checking President Trump’s retreat on the census citizenship question

(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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President Trump has officially dropped his plan to add a citizenship question in the 2020 Census, conceding defeat after a string of court losses.

But in remarks from the Rose Garden on Thursday, Trump also said he was “not backing down.” He ordered his administration to estimate the number of citizens, noncitizens and undocumented residents through other means.

The Census Bureau already was doing what Trump ordered, but the president didn’t mention that and described his move as a new direction. At other points, Trump made contradictory or arguably misleading comments. Here’s a roundup of his claims.

“Today, I’m here to say we are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population. I stand before you to outline new steps my administration is taking to ensure that citizenship is counted so that we know how many citizens we have in the United States.”

Trump said he was not backing down, because the administration is still endeavoring to count citizens, residents and undocumented immigrants.

But in legal terms, the president conceded defeat. Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr confirmed in their Rose Garden remarks that they would no longer seek to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census form.

Administration officials had said the citizenship question would improve the quality of the data the Justice Department uses to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That section prohibits racial discrimination in voting practices or procedures.

More than two dozen states and cities and a range of groups sued to block the question, calling it a ruse to weaken the political power of heavily Democratic states with large immigrant populations. Census data is used to allocate federal funds, draw legislative districts and reapportion congressional seats.

The Census Bureau’s experts found that adding the citizenship question would reduce the response rate among households with at least one noncitizen by eight percentage points. Although census responses are confidential under federal law and cannot be used to assist immigration sweeps or deportations, some noncitizens may assume otherwise and refuse to answer.

Three district court judges ruled against Trump, and eventually, so did the Supreme Court.

Three judges have found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave a phony reason for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. (Video: Meg Kelly, Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

A Republican strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller, in a 2015 study concluded that adding a citizenship question “would allow Republicans to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to stymie Democrats,” the New York Times reported.

“And months after urging President Trump’s transition team to tack the question onto the census, he wrote the key portion of a draft Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the rationale the administration later used to justify its decision,” the Times reported.

Those revelations surfaced far along in the legal battle, weeks before the Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question on procedural grounds June 27, and were not part of the court record. However, in a 5-to-4 ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross did not provide the real reason for adding the citizenship question when he cited voting rights enforcement. Roberts called Ross’s stated rationale “contrived” and “a distraction.” (Ross oversees the Census Bureau and approved the citizenship question in 2018.)

Emails revealed during the court proceedings showed that Ross falsely claimed the Justice Department started the request for the citizenship question, when it was his project all along.

“Knowing this information is vital to formulating sound public policy. Whether the issue is health care, education, civil rights or immigration, we must have a reliable count of how many citizens, noncitizens and illegal aliens are in our country.”

The Census Bureau already asks 3.5 million households a year about their citizenship status. Since 2005, the American Community Survey, a long-form questionnaire that census officials send to less than 3 percent of households, has included a citizenship question. ACS data is used widely across the government, including to distribute $675 billion a year in state and federal funds, according to the Census Bureau.

The Department of Homeland Security and other experts offer estimates of the undocumented population, but Trump wants better data.

A June 12 report from the Pew Research Center said: “There were 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2017, representing 3.2% of the total U.S. population that year. The 2017 unauthorized immigrant total is a 14% drop from the peak of 12.2 million in 2007, when this group was 4% of the U.S. population.”

All that aside, these remarks from Trump represent a big contradiction. The administration has argued for more than a year that the citizenship question was key to getting much-needed data to safeguard minorities’ voting rights. But Trump is now lumping in health care, education and immigration along with civil rights. The executive order he signed Thursday doesn’t mention voting rights enforcement and says, “First, data on the number of citizens and aliens in the country is needed to help us understand the effects of immigration on our country and to inform policymakers considering basic decisions about immigration policy.”

“We are pursuing a new option to ensure a complete and timely count of the noncitizen population. Today, I will be issuing an executive order to put this very plan into effect immediately. I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and noncitizens in our country. They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately.”

Instead of adding a citizenship question to the census form, the president is ordering his administration to hand over records to the Commerce Department that could be used to cross-reference who is and isn’t a citizen. Massive databases from DHS or the Social Security Administration especially could help officials determine the citizenship status of census respondents.

Trump called this a new option and said he would be putting the plan into effect immediately.

But this is what the Census Bureau’s experts had been recommending all along, since January 2018. And while the court case was chugging along in the background, the Census Bureau already was working on this project and seeking Social Security and immigration records, according to a draft memo from census officials released by the Justice Department.

That’s because Ross in his original decision memo from March 2018 ordered the Census Bureau to do two things: add the citizenship question and collect the records as well.

CNN reported Thursday:

While multiple challenges to the citizenship question have played out in the courts, the Census Bureau has been working behind the scenes on the administrative records.
In May, chief scientist John Abowd said at a census bureau meeting that he understood Ross asked officials to compile a citizenship data file regardless of whether the question was asked.
Ross “hasn’t issued any revision to that instruction ... so we’re operating under that instruction,” Abowd said, and the bureau convened an “internal expert panel” to lead this effort.

Trump said his executive order “eliminates long-standing obstacles to data-sharing” among agencies, which may ease the Census Bureau’s work. The order says that “the [Commerce] Department has sought access to several such sets of records maintained by other agencies, but it remains in negotiations to secure access.”

"The executive action I am taking today will ensure that the Department will have access to all available records in time for use in conjunction with the census,” the executive order says.

Michael P. McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida, said of Trump’s announcement: “It sounds like what John Abowd, who’s the data scientist, committed to in May of this year: to use administrative records to supplement the census.”

“There are going to be other databases coming from other agencies such as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Social Security Administration and others that have citizenship information, and the records there are going to be matched with people’s information provided in their responses to the decennial census,” McDonald said. “This will be the first time this has ever been done for the decennial census.”

It’s not foolproof, McDonald said, but the Census Bureau sees it as the better option. Noncitizens identified as citizens in responses to the ACS between 28 percent and 34 percent of the time, according to a bureau analysis that cross-referenced 2010 responses with administrative records from other agencies.

Under federal law, what people tell the census is confidential, so no personal data would be shared with immigration authorities under Trump’s plan, McDonald added. “The Census Bureau releases aggregate data to protect confidential information,” he said. “And to further protect confidential information, the Census Bureau is going to add a small amount of noise to prevent the possibility of identifying respondents by reverse-engineering their answers.”

The Census Bureau said in 2018 that the cost of gathering administrative records would be less than $2 million, while the cost of adding a citizenship question to the census form would have been at least $27.5 million.

“It will be, we think, far more accurate.”

This is another contradiction. The Census Bureau has said all along that cross-referencing records would generate the most accurate data on citizenship.

But Ross overruled the experts, finding that the records alone would give an “incomplete picture.”

Here’s what Ross said in his March 2018 decision memo: “... the Census Bureau is still evolving its use of administrative records, and the Bureau does not yet have a complete administrative records data set for the entire population. Thus, using administrative records alone to provide DOJ with CVAP [citizen voting-age population] data would provide an incomplete picture. In the 2010 decennial census, the Census Bureau was able to match 88.6 percent of the population with what the Bureau considers credible administrative record data. While impressive, this means that more than 10 percent of the American population — some 25 million voting age people — would need to have their citizenship imputed by the Census Bureau. Given the scale of this number, it was imperative that another option be developed to provide a greater level of accuracy than either self-response alone or use of administrative records alone would presently provide.”

“They go through houses. They go up, they ring doorbells, they talk to people. How many toilets do they have? How many desks do they have? How many beds? What’s their roof made of? The only thing we can’t ask is, ‘Are you a citizen of the United States?’ ”

Trump said this about the census during an earlier event on Thursday focused on social media. He used a joking tone. But we still have to point out that the Census Bureau from 1960 to 2015 only ever asked about toilets as part of a broader question on plumbing (the exception was 1970, when a toilet question appeared separately).

The plumbing questions appeared in supplemental surveys that would be sent to a sample of the population. The same supplemental surveys that asked about toilets also asked about citizenship. The American Community Survey stopped asking about toilets after 2015, but it still asks about citizenship. (And for those wondering, no, the Census Bureau doesn’t ask how many desks people have, or about their roofing material, or how many beds they own. But it does ask how many bedrooms are in a home.)

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