U.S. Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham testified Wednesday that he wasn’t informed ahead of time about President Donald Trump’s order seeking to exclude people in the U.S. illegally from the process of redrawing congressional districts.
Watch the hearing in the video player above.
Dillingham, whose agency is collecting the head count data that will be used for drawing the districts, testified during an emergency hearing that he was unaware of anyone from the Census Bureau playing a role in the order which civil rights groups have called unconstitutional.
The Democratic-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Reform called the hearing last week after Trump issued a memorandum seeking to exclude people in the country illegally from being included during the process for redrawing congressional districts. Civil rights group have filed multiple lawsuits challenging the memorandum as unconstitutional and an attempt to limit the power of Latinos and immigrants of color.
The committee’s chairwoman, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, said Trump was trying to “weaponize” the census to hurt immigrants and help Republicans.
“Let me be clear: The president’s directive is unconstitutional. It’s illegal, and it disregards the precedent set by every other president, beginning with George Washington,” Maloney said.
Although the Census Bureau has started examining methodologies for complying with the president’s order, that doesn’t change its goal of trying to complete the once-a-decade head count of every person in the U.S., Dillingham said.
U.S. Rep. James Comer, the Republican leader on the committee, said Trump’s order just applied to the process of redrawing congressional districts and didn’t affect how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed. The Kentucky Republican said the order was constitutional. Including people living in the U.S. illegally during the apportionment process would undermine “the principle of one person, one vote,” he said.
The White House has requested an additional $1 billion for the 2020 census to help with the challenges posed by the pandemic, but the Senate is proposing only $448 million, Dillingham said.
Concerns about the virus’s spread caused the Census Bureau to suspend field operations in March and April and push back deadlines, including for wrapping up the head count from the end of July to the end of October. The Census Bureau in April asked Congress to grant it a delay in the deadline for turning over data used for the process of redrawing congressional districts and legislative districts.
If granted, the request would push back the deadline for turning over the data used for apportionment, the process of divvying up congressional seats, from Dec. 31 to April 30. It also would postpone the deadline for turning over data for redistricting legislative and local districts from March 30 to July 31.
The Democratic-controlled House agreed to the extensions as part of coronavirus relief legislation, but the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to do so.
Outside experts worry that the extra funding requested by the White House signals an abandonment of the delay requests and is an attempt to speed up the count so that the numbers-crunching process for apportionment is conducted on Trump’s watch.
When asked by Democratic lawmakers if the deadline requests were being dropped, Dillingham said he wasn’t privy to ongoing discussions about the timeline between Congress and the Trump administration.
“We have, for planning purposes, made assessments and continue to do so,” Dillingham said.
That answer drew a warning from U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from California, that Dillingham’s name “would go down in history if this is the worst census conducted by the United States government.”
“You will be responsible,” Gomez said.
Before Dillingham’s testimony, four former Census Bureau directors who had served under Democratic and Republican presidents testified, as did a law professor.
Maloney asked former Census Bureau Directors Vincent Barabba, Kenneth Prewitt, Robert Groves and John Thompson, as well as Chapman University law professor John Eastman, if Trump’s order violated the law, if every person should be counted and if apportionment needs to include every person, including undocumented workers. All the former Census Bureau directors said yes, and Eastman said no.
Eastman, who was questioned primarily by Republican lawmakers, said allowing people in the U.S. illegally to be included in the apportionment process would “dilute” the votes of citizens “in other places that haven’t encouraged such illegal immigration into those states.”
Last year, Trump issued an order to gather citizenship data on U.S. residents through administrative records after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked his administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form. Gomez said Trump’s order last week showed what the administration’s true purpose was in trying to obtain citizenship information.
Prewitt warned that administrative records don’t do a good job of determining who is in the country illegally. A committee of experts should be named to set metrics for judging what is considered an adequate census, given all of the obstacles the count has faced, he said.
Thompson, who served as a director of the Census Bureau in the Obama administration, said he worried the president’s order would reduce participation in the census by people in hard-to-count communities, including noncitizens and immigrants.
“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,” Thompson said. “That is, there will be serious beliefs that their information will be given to immigration enforcement. The end result will be most likely be increased undercounts of these populations.”