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Biden Administration Tables Trump's Citizenship Data Request For Redistricting

Legal fights over the use of census data brought protesters to the Supreme Court in 2019.
Sarah L. Voisin
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Legal fights over the use of census data brought protesters to the Supreme Court in 2019.

The U.S. Census Bureau has stopped working on a Trump administration-initiated project to produce citizenship data that could have politically benefited Republicans when voting districts are redrawn.

Citing President Biden's executive order that revoked President Donald Trump's directive for federal agencies to share their citizenship records, the bureau updated its website Friday with a statement that says its work on anonymized data about the U.S. citizenship status of every adult living in the country has been "suspended indefinitely."

This change means that states will likely not get access to the citizenship data needed to carry out a radically different way of remaking political maps that determine the areas lawmakers represent. A GOP strategist had concluded that using block-level citizen voting age population, or CVAP, data for redistricting "would be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."

"The Census Bureau will review with the Voting Section of the Department of Justice whether the current format and granularity of the CVAP tabulation based on the American Community Survey continues to meet their statistical requirements," one of the new statements on the bureau's website said.

In a statement released Thursday, the bureau said the 2020 census data products "will not include information on citizenship or immigration status."

The bureau's announcement comes shortly after Biden's executive order also reversed Trump's unprecedented policy of altering a key 2020 census count by excluding unauthorized immigrants. Biden's directive calls for all U.S. residents, regardless of immigration status, to be counted in state population numbers that,according to the Constitution, must include the "whole number of persons in each state."

Wilbur Ross, Trump's commerce secretary who oversaw the bureau, initially requested the block-level citizenship data in 2018 through an attempt to add a citizenship question to last year's census forms.

The Trump administration argued that the Justice Department needed citizenship data more detailed than the estimates from the American Community Survey — which replaced the long-form census — that the DOJ has relied on for years to protect the voting rights of racial and language minorities. After the Supreme Court found that justification appeared "contrived" and blocked the addition of a citizenship question, Ross directed the bureau in July 2019 to use government records instead to produce the data for states to use when redrawing voting districts.

Months later, however, the bureau revealed that not a single state redistricting official had asked for this citizenship information to be included in the redistricting data.

That demographic data from the 2020 census are legally due to states by March 31. But the coronavirus pandemic and last-minute schedule changes by Trump officials have delayed the bureau's timeline for running quality checks on last year's census results.

Redistricting data are not expected until months after the bureau finishes putting together the latest state population counts, which are on track for release in early March. A Senate bill is expected to be reintroduced soon that would extend the legal deadline for redistricting data to the end of July.

The Trump administration's citizenship data project is facing an ongoing federal lawsuit led by attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC.

Speaking to NPR shortly after the release of Biden's executive order, Thomas Saenz, MALDEF's president and general counsel, indicated that the legal challenge — which alleges that the data project was intended to discriminate against Latinos and noncitizens — may be ending soon.

"There are still many months before the redistricting data is released, so I think we'll have an opportunity to determine where we are and resolve the case," Saenz said Wednesday. "What President Biden did is a strong indication that we will be able to resolve this case in a way that is respectful of the Constitution."

Asked whether the Justice Department believes that using block-level citizenship data would be more appropriate than estimates for redistricting, DOJ spokesperson Kristina Mastropasqua wrote in an email Thursday: "No comment."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.