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How the Trump administration plans to learn citizenship status without a census question

Last year, President Trump told the country that he was going to procure citizenship data of U.S. residents one way or another. Now, it seems his promise is coming to fruition. Instead of asking a citizenship question outright on the 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau is complying with the president's demand in other ways.

A new report from NPR details how the Trump administration is gleaning data from a number of federal agencies and departments to determine the citizenship status of residents. Among those agencies are the U.S. Marshals within the Department of Justice, which has data on incarcerated residents, and the Department of Homeland Security, which has agreed to turn over information from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE.

The Census Bureau is essentially using records from any interaction a resident may have with the federal government. Medicare and Medicaid data, some tax filings, Social Security information, and information from public housing programs, like the low-income housing tax credit, will function as demographic puzzle pieces the agency can compile to create a larger picture of an individual's life. It's not new for the federal government to have some information about how much a resident is paying in taxes, but it worries some to see that this information could be used outside of its original intent: All of this data could be used by federal agencies to track where people live and work, what they look like, and who they live with.

The collection of citizenship data comes amid the ongoing census count, which has been derailed by coronavirus. The Trump administration wanted the 2020 survey to explicitly ask about residents' citizenship status, but the matter was challenged in court. The Constitution only says that each person residing in the country shall be counted, and makes no mention of nationhood, but Trump was keen on asking the question to ensure, as his administration said, that states would be better able to maintain voting access as outlined in the Voting Rights Act. Opponents of the effort said that asking a citizenship question was not only illegal, but served to intimidate undocumented people and deter them from answering the census at all.

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The national count, which happens every 10 years, is used to create voting districts, so not counting residents could result in their loss of political power in Washington, as well as less allocation of resources from the federal government. In the end, there is no citizenship question on the 2020 census, as the Supreme Court temporarily blocked it from being added to the questionnaire.

Instead, the Trump administration has taken an alternate route, saying it will collect citizenship data via executive order. Trump wrote in the order, released last summer: "I am hereby ordering all agencies to share information requested by the Department to the maximum extent permissible under law."

The Census Bureau posted an update on its website outlining the "approach to using administrative data in many operations of the 2020 Census." Administrative data, as far as the bureau is concerned, refers to "microdata" from state and local agencies and "commercial" entities. As NPR points out, the broad powers outlined in Trump's executive order afforded to the Census Bureau and other federal agencies could be used to reconstruct the citizenship question's intended outcome without ever having to ask the question.

"These records could be used to yield data that could radically change political mapmaking and shift the balance of political power across the United States over the next decade," NPR wrote.

Collecting data on who is residing in the country legally allows federal agencies to determine who doesn't have legal documentation. The Census Bureau says that this data will allow it to understand better the citizen voting age population by region and municipality, though officials have not stated exactly which problem the data will allow them to solve.