(CNN)What would seem among the federal government’s most straightforward constitutional assignments — tallying the national population — is devolving into a political showdown over the census previously unseen in modern American history.
The Trump administration’s drive to compile citizenship data and use it to the benefit of Republicans is unprecedented, experts say, and comes on top of significant challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. With just weeks remaining in the decennial tally, the moves have drawn concern from across the universe of government watchdogs, worries inside the US Census Bureau and multiple lawsuits across the country. President Donald Trump’s summer directive removing undocumented immigrants from the number of people used when dividing seats in Congress threatens to overshadow the final weeks where census workers follow up with households that have not yet completed the survey. The September 30 deadline for collecting responses is a month earlier than the administration had proposed when adjusting for the coronavirus — and is being implemented despite internal warnings the move would “reduce accuracy.”Judge orders Trump administration to stop 'winding down' 2020 Census field workThe shifting schedule so concerned a federal judge that she issued a rare late-night Saturday order directing the Census Bureau to immediately halt its plans to wind down operations in some local offices. Read MoreThe White House has significantly expanded its visibility of internal Census Bureau operation. Senior administration officials created several new positions and moved in handpicked aides from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ office without describing the appointees’ new responsibilities — prompting a request from the agency’s inspector general for the appointees’ job descriptions and qualifications. While the changes have flown largely under the radar, the census itself is a matter of enormous civic importance to the country, shaping who represents local neighborhoods and states, the division of hundreds of billions in federal government spending each year and electoral votes to select presidents. The politicization of the normally bureaucratic and data-focused mission, critics of the administration say, threatens the production of a complete and accurate count. “What we’ve seen over the course of the last three to four years is a series of attempts to derail the count,” said Thomas Wolf, who has participated in census-related lawsuits as an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “The census is not a dry statistical matter. It is something that is bound up with key questions about how we distribute political power in this country, and also how the federal government takes care of basic necessities.” 52% of young adults in the US are living with their parents. That's the highest share since the Great DepressionIt also drew the four recent former census directors to speak out publicly, saying the administration’s plan “will result in seriously incomplete [counts] in many areas across our country.” The Trump administration’s actions with the census this year follow a trend of politicizing government agencies with a history of limited political involvement, including the US Postal Service as a mail-in election approaches and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention amid a pandemic.”I think this administration is intent on sabotaging what up until now had been non-partisan professional arms of the government,” said Dale Ho, an attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups in census-related lawsuits. “There should be nothing less partisan than arithmetic.” The Census Bureau did not respond to requests for comment.Challenging environment It’s hard to imagine a more challenging environment to ask every American to complete a government survey. Trust in government generally is at historic lows. Critics say the Trump administration’s rhetoric about immigration has soured attitudes and even frightened some legal and illegal immigrants alike into not responding. Most households are not receiving a paper survey and must go online to submit their response. And in this election year, everything the government does is seen through a political lens. Shortening 2020 census risks 'serious errors,' officials warnedThen came the coronavirus pandemic, putting strains on many people’s livelihoods and often limiting interpersonal interactions. Colleges sent students home, complicating the government’s plans to count them. Four in 10 Americans told the Pew Research Center this summer they wouldn’t even open the door when census officials knock. Those factors combine to throw off the decade of planning that goes into counting — in the right place and without duplication — more than 300 million people, according to groups advocating for their communities to reply. It especially threatens, they say, a major undercount of groups the government calls hard-to-count populations, mostly minority ethnic groups and young people. The Census Bureau told CNN it has not yet compiled data on response rates by racial groups, and said that “this will not be available until after data processing is complete.”A planning agency in Illinois says the government’s response data “suggest that areas with more people of color are filling out the census at lower rates than similar areas did in 2010.” And not by a small amount, either. “Some areas have rates that are lower by more than 20 percentage points,” according to a recent report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. In New York City, officials are warning that neighborhoods with Chinese and Korean populations have lower response rates than the rest of the city. Data there shows that Manhattan, which his majority White, is further along than much of Queens, which is majority non-White. Some rural areas are lagging behind, too. The heavily Hispanic counties along the US-Mexico border have some of the lowest response rates in the nation, according to data compiled by the City University of New York’s Mapping Service. In Hudspeth County, population 4,900, just one in five households have responded to the survey. Seventy-eight percent of the population there is Hispanic. Census director says he wasn't involved in Trump citizenship orderThe Ohio University upperclassmen living in off-campus housing in Athens are notoriously difficult to count, says county commissioner Chris Chmiel. But this year was worse than most because students returned to their parents’ homes — due the pandemic — right as the census was getting underway. Chmiel fears many parents may have counted their children as living at home, rather than at school, where the Census Bureau says they should be counted. While about 61% of Athens County has been tallied, an off-campus-housing-heavy area is at only 35%. “We’re just hoping that the final enumeration is going to save us,” Chmiel tells CNN. Nationwide, about 65% of households have responded to the census. The Census Bureau says it has completed its follow up work with another 20% of households — although that number includes homes its workers presume are vacant or have stopped visiting. ‘There just isn’t enough time’The pandemic struck just as the Census Bureau was sending a massive army of field workers out to verify the accuracy of addresses, knock on the doors of households that hadn’t responded, and drum up support for responding at community meetings and other events. Safety concerns put much of that work on hold. Census officials said there was no way they could accurately complete the work on time. “We are past the window of being able get those counts by those dates at this point,” Al Fontenot, the career official leading the 2020 census, told reporters in July. The September 30 date to finish field work and stop collecting responses wouldn’t do. So the Trump administration put together a plan to give the Census Bureau some relief, shifting plans and extending deadlines in some cases by three or four months. Lawmakers got on board with the extension, and crafted legislation to change the due date for the numbers that determine how seats in Congress are divided. “The Census Bureau asked Congress for a 120-day extension,” Trump said in April. “I think 120 days isn’t nearly enough.” By late July, when Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham appeared before Congress, the administration was backpedaling from the extension. Dillingham declined to say whether his workers needed the additional time and said the conversation about extending the timeframe “wasn’t at my level.” Dillingham’s predecessors who appeared at the same hearing began to ring the alarm. Kenneth Prewitt, who led the 2000 census, called the coronavirus a “huge challenge, unprecedented” for the count. “The chances of having a census accurate enough to use is unclear — very, very much unclear — whether we’ll even have a census,” Prewitt testified. John Thompson, who stepped down as director in 2017, testified that “not extending those deadlines is going to put tremendous pressure on the Census Bureau.”Some cities, states and groups advocating for an accurate count grew concerned in late August that the Census would conclude even earlier than September 30. The administration told a federal court it had “already begun taking steps to conclude field operations,” and that an extension of the window “could not be implemented at this point without significant costs and burdens.” That statement prompted the federal judge to order the counting continue while she hears arguments from both sides about whether the September 30 date should stand. The judge has also signaled she will order the government to produce records explaining how it arrived at the shortened window. Government attorneys initially explained that no records existed, and then argued that it was not obligated to produce them. “I just find it hard to believe that there is no administrative record here,” Judge Lucy Koh, who sits in California, said at a hearing on Tuesday. “I do not understand the government’s refusal to be transparent with what they have decided to do.” Who counts? About two weeks into his tenure as commerce secretary, Ross asked an aide to determine whether undocumented immigrants are counted in the census, internal documents show. Later that spring, his request became more pointed. “I am mystified why nothing have been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?” Ross wrote in a May 2017 email that was released in a 2018 lawsuit. His directive turned into a plan to inquire about the citizenship status of every US resident — which Census Bureau officials counseled against, saying it “is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data” than could be compiled from records kept by other government agencies. The administration ultimately backed down after several courts, including the Supreme Court, concluded they did not believe Ross’ argument that the data would help protect minority voting rights. But while the Census Bureau can’t ask about citizenship status, Trump directed officials to collect citizenship records from state and federal databases, and in July he ordered census officials to develop a plan to remove non-citizens from the ultimate data, prompting several lawsuits. In court filings defending that order, the administration has argued the order does not violate federal laws against using statistical sampling in the official counts, and says that challenges to the order are premature in any event.Judith Bale, an attorney representing New York state, called the order “categorically and blatantly unconstitutional,” and said it is highly likely several states will lose seats in Congress.”The new policy is a discriminatory attack on immigrants and immigrant communities, and particularly immigrant communities of color,” the New York Immigration Coalition argued in a different lawsuit against the policy filed this summer. “It is intended to erase these individuals and communities, and to send the message that they do not count.Dillingham, the census director, told Congress he had no idea the order about undocumented immigrants was coming — a remarkable sign that political forces above him in the administration are steering the count. “I heard — there was a story in the local press here in the DC area, perhaps a Capitol Hill newspaper, or as I recall, someone reported a story that such a directive may be coming down,” he testified to Congress. While he “was waiting to learn more,” he learned the order “was posted on the web.”
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