Skip to content

Census Bureau director: ‘Stand down’ on tracking immigrants

Agency halts work on Trump’s plan to exclude undocumented immigrants from census results

Steven Dillingham, 
director of the U.S. Census Bureau, at a hearing last February before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Steven Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, at a hearing last February before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Census Bureau has put the brakes on President Donald Trump’s effort to identify undocumented immigrants in census data, the agency said Wednesday.

The decision, first reported by NPR, came after a whistleblower report from the Commerce Department’s inspector general raised concerns about the agency’s rush to produce the results before the end of Trump’s term on Jan. 20. 

In his response Wednesday to the federal watchdog, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said he asked staff to stop working on the “technical report” about immigrants in the country.

“Upon learning of these concerns, I followed best management practices and immediately informed the career Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer that those involved should ‘stand down’ and discontinue their data reviews,” Dillingham said in the letter. 

Earlier in the day, multiple advocacy groups that partnered with the Census Bureau in last year’s count called on Dillingham to immediately resign over the reported rush. 

“It is a betrayal of the Census Bureau’s mission for the director to direct the staff to do anything but complete its work on the 2020 census, including the apportionment counts which are already past the statutory deadline,” Arturo Vargas, NALEO Education Fund CEO, said Wednesday.

NALEO was joined by Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, three groups that the Census Bureau regarded as key partners in establishing trust in local communities.

Within the last two years, Trump took two executive steps to single out immigrants in the census after a failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the questionnaire: an executive order to compile detailed data on the citizen population of voting age nationwide, and a memorandum to exclude undocumented immigrants from the process of divvying up House seats. Dillingham’s letter mentions the executive order, but not the memorandum.

Previously, agency officials said the information under the memorandum would be released after apportionment results. The Census Bureau already missed its Dec. 31 statutory deadline to produce apportionment results. On Monday, a Justice Department attorney told a federal judge that the agency could not finish the work before March 6. The agency has publicly acknowledged it found errors in about 1 million records, which could result in missing or double-counting tens of thousands of people.

In her memo Tuesday, Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson said Dillingham made efforts to produce a report estimating the immigrant population “a number one priority.” She  said her investigation into whistleblower reports revealed Dillingham directed the work to be finished by Jan. 15.

According to whistleblowers, Dillingham ordered officials to prioritize the exclusion of undocumented workers in a bid to finish that work before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week. Whistleblowers came forward alleging the work would not pass muster and officials had ignored their concerns.

“Those employees acknowledged that they have not had sufficient time to conduct their normal data quality checks, and they expressed concern that the data required for this report is not ready for publication for several reasons,” the watchdog report said.

Democrats in the House, who have frequently clashed with the Trump administration over census operations, said Wednesday they were pleased the work stopped.

“Even in his last days in office — during impeachment proceedings — Trump is still trying to pull a fast one on the American people by defying the Constitution, corrupting the #2020Census, and using it for the GOP’s political supremacy,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., said in a tweet  Wednesday in response to NPR report. “He failed. And of course, he got caught.”

Officials at the Census Bureau did not respond to multiple requests Wednesday for comment. 

Experts and observers have complained about apparent politicization of the process for months, including the administration’s installation of two political appointees at the agency last fall. Tuesday’s whistleblower report said they were key in the effort to rush the exclusion of undocumented immigrants.

Trump signed a memorandum seeking to exclude undocumented immigrants in July. Shortly after that, the administration dropped its efforts to extend the census count so Trump could still control apportionment calculations regardless of who won the November election.

The Supreme Court allowed the effort to go forward last month, finding the current case “riddled with contingencies and speculation” and overruling lower court rulings that found the effort unconstitutional.

However, the administration has not said how many undocumented immigrants it could cross-reference with census results and exclude.

Census results are also used in legislative map making, guiding $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year and thousands of private business decisions.