Trump Census Plan Might Leave Out Some Legal Residents

By: - September 16, 2020 12:00 am

Posters encourage participation in the 2020 census in Seattle. States and cities are on both sides of a battle over Trump administration plans to exclude immigrants living in the country illegally from congressional representation. Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

Read more Stateline coverage of the 2020 census.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify Todd Graham’s position on U.S. Census Bureau’s use of administrative records.

A Trump administration plan to use the census to exclude from congressional representation immigrants who are living here illegally might inadvertently exclude many U.S. citizens living under the radar in states such as Alaska, New Mexico and West Virginia.

Last week, a federal appeals court in New York blocked the administration’s strategy, ruling that “the President does not have the authority to exclude illegal aliens” from congressional representation since the Constitution calls for “total population” as the basis for apportioning seats. But the ruling allowed federal work on identifying immigration status to continue, in case the ruling is overturned by a higher court.

The U.S. Census Bureau has not shared the strategy it would use to identify people living here illegally.

However, it often relies on “identification by exclusion” when it can’t find someone in official records that require proof of citizenship, said Todd Graham, a forecaster for the Metropolitan Council in Minneapolis-St. Paul and former chairman of the Census Bureau’s state data center network.

“Tracking them down with a paper trail or data trail is impossible,” Graham said. The bureau would likely have to use some kind of statistical modeling to guess at how many such people are truly living here illegally, he said.

Like immigrants living here illegally, many U.S. citizens who live in rural or tribal areas and are wary of answering census questions also leave a limited paper trail.

In a 2014 test matching 2010 survey responses to administrative records, which can verify citizenship and legal status, the success rate for matches was less than 75% in 23 states and the District of Columbia. In the test, Census Bureau data scientists sought to match names, birthdates and addresses for people who responded to the 2010 American Community Survey to administrative data including tax returns, change of address forms and housing subsidies. 

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.