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What government documents reveal about the 2020 census

Amid criticism, the Trump administration is facing lawsuits for adding a question about citizenship to the upcoming 2020 census. And the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees the census, recently released more than a thousand pages of documents about its decision to include the citizenship question. NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang, who has been examining those documents, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Trump administration is facing lawsuits and criticism for adding a question about citizenship to the upcoming 2020 census. Opponents say it will discourage noncitizens from participating and also reduce government funding in areas with large noncitizen populations who are not counted. The Justice Department says the data is needed to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. And, the Commerce Department which oversees the Census recently released more than 1000 pages of documents about its decision to include the citizenship question. NPR reporter Hansi Lo Wang who has been examining those documents joins us now. Well, what did you learn?

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    We learned that there was an internal memo put out by the Census Bureau for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that he looked over before he made his decision. And in this memo, Census Bureau officials warned that adding a citizenship question would be costly. They estimated that it could increase the cost of the 2020 census by at least $ 27.5 million. The concern here is that non citizens, seeing that this question is appearing on the census form for the first time for all households since 1950, and also in this current climate of increased immigration enforcement and a rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration, that all this would really discourage non citizens from participating. So therefore more money would be needed, more efforts would be needed from the Census Bureau to make sure every person is counted in the country as the Constitution requires.

  •  HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Besides the cost, the chief scientists in the Census Bureau, what are they concerned about? The accuracy of it, or the quality?

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    Yes. If there are fewer people participating, we're not going to get a complete count, possibly. You can try your hardest to knock on doors and to do follow up. But some people will just do their best to not be counted.

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    What's the role of the Secretary of State Kris Kobach in all of this?

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    Well what was interesting. There were e-mails that he sent to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that were included in these documents. These were e-mails that were sent in July of 2017. And he said he was directed by Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist, to speak with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross about a citizenship question on the census. And this is months before the Justice Department put in a formal request to the Census Bureau to get this question added for the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department says.

  •  HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, this is the Kansas secretary of state. He makes these requests. But the Justice Department and the Commerce Department have given different reasons. They didn't say that this was part of their thinking.

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    The Commerce Department says they're responding to the Justice Department's request. And the Justice Department is saying, we need this for the Voting Rights Act, and we need it to better enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which has provisions against racial discrimination. And they need better data on voting age citizens. Ever since the Voting Rights Act has been enacted since 1965 they've used estimates of U.S. citizens based on smaller Census Bureau surveys, which only go out to a sample of households. And so they need better data. That's what the Justice Department says. But looking at these e-mails, Kris Kobach does not mention the Voting Rights Act. And certainly he's referencing a phone call that he had with Secretary Wilbur Ross, it appears in the early days of the Trump administration. It's unclear exactly the extent of their phone call. I reached out to the Commerce Department to get more details. They wouldn't provide any details, and this e-mail really should be considered, they said, as part of what Wilbur Ross looked at.

  •  HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are there other ways that the Census Department is trying to figure out who is a citizen and not a citizen besides just this question?

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    There are. Right now they are looking into getting access to federal data sets from the Social Security Administration, from the State Department, specifically visa and passport data, as well as from the USCIS, to look at the naturalization data. And this is all part of the plan that Secretary Wilbur Ross did approve at the recommendation of census bureau officials, who originally said, you don't necessarily need to add a citizenship question. Maybe we can compile existing government data about U.S. citizens to create a more comprehensive data set about how many citizens there are in the country. And so this is part of the plan currently. And we'll see how that pans out, because this is really new territory for the Census Bureau to use its data in this way.

  •  HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So if this question is included in the census now, and if there is a significant undercount, what are the ripple effects?

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    The ripple effects are huge, possibly. We have to remember that the census numbers are used to really build our government. They directly impact how many seats of House of Representatives each state gets. It also impacts the government from the federal level down to the local level. How legislative districts are drawn. And again, the federal dollars, how that 800 billion dollars a year, estimated, is distributed. And that directly impacts which highways get repaired, which roads get built, how school districts decide where to build new schools and where businesses decide to build new supermarkets. A lot of is depending upon the census numbers.

  •  HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Hansi Lo Wang of NPR. Thanks so much.

  •  HANSI LO WANG:

    Thank you.

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