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Trump administration asks states for citizenship info despite Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court earlier this year blocked the Census Bureau's plans to include a citizenship question in its 2020 population count.
Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Supreme Court
Demonstrators rally at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

The U.S. Census Bureau is asking states for drivers' license records that typically include citizenship data and has made a new request for information on recipients of government assistance after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked plans to include a citizenship question in its 2020 population count.

The two approaches, documented by The Associated Press, alarm civil rights activists. They caution that inaccuracies in state motor vehicle records make them a poor choice for tracking citizenship, if that is the bureau's goal, and they see the requests as an extension of earlier efforts that could chill Latino participation in the 2020 Census.

After the U.S. Supreme Court nixed the plan by President Donald Trump's administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, the president signed an executive order in July requiring the U.S. Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, to compile citizenship information through state and federal administrative records. Specifically, it ordered the department to increase efforts "to obtain State administrative records concerning citizenship."

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators told The AP that most, if not all, states recently received requests for information including citizenship status, race, birthdates and addresses. The association has advised members to consult their privacy officers when deciding how to respond.

"Each state is making their own determination how to respond," association spokeswoman Claire Jeffrey said in an email.

In Illinois, Secretary of State Jesse White denied the request.

"We, as a general rule, are not comfortable with giving out our data, certainly not in such a huge amount. That was the overriding concern," said spokesman Dave Drucker.

Other states are weighing what to do. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has received the request but hasn't responded, spokeswoman Beth Frady said.

The request has alarmed Latino advocacy groups. Motor vehicle agency records are notoriously inaccurate and "bad at determining when someone is not a citizen," said Andrea Senteno, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is challenging Trump's executive order.

"The Census Bureau usually plans for these types of big changes in their operations many, many years in advance, but they don't have enough time right now to actually plan and provide clear information to the public about how they are going to use these administrative records," Senteno said. "That is because they're flying by the seat of their pants right now."

The bureau is also trying to gather other state records on individual recipients of public programs. A new request published last month in the Federal Register said the records would be used for the 2020 Census and other research, and they are needed to "improve efficiency and accuracy in our data collections, and to improve measures of the population and economy."

While the request doesn't explicitly ask for citizenship information, some demographers who work with the bureau on state-level data say the timing makes them suspect the request is responsive to the president's executive order.

"The timing of it, and noticing in the executive order, it's well-stated that this is going to be a push directing the Census Bureau to work on gathering these state inputs, it would lead me to believe that the two are probably connected," said Susan Strate, senior manager of Population Estimates Program at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.

States already share records on food assistance and other programs to help the bureau track traditionally undercounted populations and pinpoint vacant houses. The states' administrative records could cover a host of topics, including citizenship, said John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director in the Obama administration.

"Here's the confusing thing about it," Thompson said. "They've already been reaching out to states. They've got a number of ongoing programs where they reach out to states for various data."

States typically don't do a good job of tracking citizenship information, said Kenneth Prewitt, a former Census Bureau director in the Clinton administration.

"People move, divorce, buy homes, pay state taxes, and these behaviors are not tied to any citizenship records," Prewitt said.

In a statement, the Census Bureau said it started requesting state administrative records in 2016 to help with the 2020 Census and ongoing surveys. The records include birthdates, addresses, race, Hispanic origin and citizenship status. The bureau didn't answer why it was requesting drivers' license information or why it had made the new request last month for state administrative records when it already receives records from states.

The bureau said the records it receives are stripped of identifiable information and used for statistical purposes only.

"Responses to all Census Bureau surveys and administrative records obtained by the Census Bureau are safe, secure and protected by law," its statement said.

When it comes to the citizenship question, there has been a tension between Trump appointees pushing the president's agenda and career Census Bureau workers who said adding citizenship to the 2020 questionnaire would have reduced participation and made for a less accurate count.

The department is now casting a wide net for administrative records, and bureau officials have said they will decide by the end of March on a methodology for tracking citizenship.

The 2020 Census will determine how many congressional seats each state gets and the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding, as well as the drawing of state legislative districts. The apportionment of U.S. congressional seats is based on states' overall populations, but Trump's executive order has raised the possibility that just the citizen population could be used for electoral maps.

Several civil rights organizations challenged Trump's executive order in federal court in Maryland last month, claiming the order is "motivated by a racially discriminatory scheme to reduce Latino political representation" and gives an advantage to white voters at the expense of Latino voters.