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What’s at stake with political and pandemic challenges for 2020 census

Editor's note: The guest in this segment misstated that an enslaved person in the U.S. was counted as three-fourths of a person under the Constitution. Enslaved Black Americans were counted as three-fifths of a person.

On Tuesday, President Trump signed a memo aiming to bar undocumented immigrants from being included in the census count that determines how many members of Congress are allocated to each state. The census is conducted once in a decade, but it shapes funding, policy and power for years. Lisa Desjardins reports and talks to Hansi Lo Wang of NPR about what this and the pandemic mean for the census.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Tuesday, President Trump signed a memo that aims to bar undocumented immigrants from being included in the census count that determines how many members of Congress are allocated for each state.

    Lisa Desjardins explores what it means.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The 2020 census is a once-in-a-decade feat, a count of the U.S. population that will affect policy and power for years.

    But it faces unprecedented issues, from the pandemic itself, to political debate over how it should be run, including the president's latest memo.

    Joining me to help understand all of this is NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

    Hansi, thank you so much.

    And let me start right off with the president's move. Help us understand it. Can the president, in fact, block the census from counting undocumented immigrants?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Well, I think the thing to take a look at is the Constitution. Let's take a look at the actual text of the Constitution.

    The 14th Amendment of the Constitution, the actual text says, "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each state."

    And it's the whole number of persons because the 14th Amendment was enacted after the Civil War, after the ending of the counting an enslaved person — an enslaved person as three-fourths of a person.

    And more than 200 years, the country has included both citizens and non-citizens, regardless of immigration status, in the population counts that determine how seats are divided up in Congress.

    So, President Trump would be going up against more than two centuries of precedent, and also another part of the Constitution that says it is Congress, not the president, who has the final authority about the count.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You know, we at "NewsHour," myself, and a lot of our politics team love talking about the census, and it's because it's so important.

    Can you just remind folks what's at stake here? Why does the census matters so much?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    It matters because, when you're talking about the census, you are really talking about power, and you're talking about money.

    And this is the power and money of the people living in the United States. This is how the country determines how it distributes an estimated $1.5 trillion — with a T. — a year in federal tax dollars for Medicare, for Medicaid, other public services, how that gets divvied up to local communities.

    This also determines how many congressional seats, Electoral College votes each state gets. And this is data that informs how voting districts are redrawn once every 10 years after the census is — after the census is counted.

    So this has impacts on the balance of power from local government all the way up to federal government.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You know, there's another political storm around the census as well.

    The president has appointed a new deputy director for policy and an assistant to that person. Some in the statistics community say they're not qualified. Can you talk about that appointment and why it is controversial?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    The Trump administration, they think, these two brand-new appointments, two new top-level positions that never existed before at the Census Bureau, a deputy director of policy, Nathaniel Cogley, a political science professor, he's being appointed at a time where there already is a deputy director at the Census Bureau.

    And it's still unclear to me and to the public exactly what does Nathaniel Cogley, this deputy director of policy, what he does at the Census Bureau, and also what his senior adviser, Adam Korzeniewski, what he does.

    Both of them have qualifications that don't seem to quite match with what the Census Bureau does. It's a federal statistical agency focused on survey methodology, statistics, economics.

    Both of these appointees don't seem to have much of that background, based on their resumes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And then we come to the public health crisis itself.

    Let's look at a map quickly. This is a map of the Americans who have responded themselves to the census. The darker states have the higher response rate. On average, just over 60 percent of Americans have responded.

    But, Hansi, by my account, that leaves over 100 million people at least that the census still has to contact. Where is the agency right now on completing the census on time?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    The Census Bureau has a big job to do.

    About four out of 10 homes have not been counted yet. And it has given itself until October 31 to try to complete this count. It's trying to send out door-knockers to do in-person interviews with households, because, at this point of the census that, historically, these are households that are less likely to fill out a form on their own, and they will require convincing and person-to-person interaction.

    And that is a big challenge, at a time where we're all trying to keep social distance. There are a lot of public health concerns. And there's some parts of the country that are under lockdown, and may be under lockdown when door-knocking is supposed to roll out nationwide on August 11.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Hansi Lo Wang, our eye on the census, thank you for all of your work on this.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    You're very welcome.

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