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Trump has been forced to retreat from trying to add a citizenship question to the Census questionnaire. But the alternative he has proposed looks like a national citizenship registry. We discuss the implications with Keshia Morris of Common Cause

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JACQUELINE LUQMAN This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

After the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census, Trump has been forced to retreat from that effort. But the alternative he has proposed to gather what he says is the real number of undocumented or illegal immigrants in the US, is even more concerning than the citizenship question itself in some ways. Here to talk about the potential implication of this new tactic is Keshia Morris. Keshia is the Census & Mass Incarceration Project Manager at Common Cause, and leads their 2020 Census Campaign in the organization’s efforts to end mass criminalization. Thank you for joining me today, Keshia.

KESHIA MORRIS Happy to be here. Thank you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN Since Trump has abandoned trying to add the citizenship question to the census, because the Supreme Court won’t let him, he has responded by directing all federal agencies to provide citizenship information to the Commerce Department that administers the US Census. Listen to what he says here when announcing his executive order.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP I stand before you to outline new steps my administration has taken to ensure that citizenship is counted so that we know how many citizens we have in the United States. Today I will be issuing an executive order to put this very plan into effect immediately. I’m hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and noncitizens in our country. They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So we hear—And I apologize for making you listen to Trump again. I’m going to do that to you a couple of more times. I apologize in advance. But here, Trump is ordering all federal agencies to furnish all legal documents that they have on citizenship to the Department of Commerce. First, Keshia, is this request legal? Will it hold up to legal scrutiny? And second, doesn’t the Department of Commerce, through the census, already have data on the number of citizens and ostensibly noncitizens in the US?

KESHIA MORRIS Well, we will see if it holds up to legal scrutiny. The Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau already have really great data on citizenship. They collect citizenship data from about 2% of households on a rolling basis. So every month, there is the American Community Survey that gets sent out to households that asks, “Are you a citizen of the United States?” And that data is used to make sure that, you know, we have an accurate representation of who’s in our country.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN It’s interesting that you mentioned the American Community Survey because last year, the National Academies of Sciences examined this proposed citizenship question. They conducted studies and panels and they did what, you know, the National Academies of Sciences do. They concluded that the Department of Commerce’s “recent decision to add a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census is inconsistent with ‘the proper performance of the functions’ of the Census Bureau.” And it also says that “the American Community Survey already meets the stated need for citizenship data. The Secretary’s” — this is the Secretary of Commerce— “memo on March 26, 2018, discounts the current collection of citizenship data in the ACS.” So this was an issue of the Trump administration, Keshia, completely ignoring the data that’s already being collected by the ACS. Is that correct?

KESHIA MORRIS That is absolutely correct. So the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. We have had a series of censuses since then that uses ACS data. So there have been a number of legal experts that said, you know, the ACS data is all that they need, there is no need for block-level citizenship data, and it would in fact harm their efforts more than help.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN So Trump also raised the issue of apportioning districts, and so did the Secretary of Commerce and A.G. William Barr in defending this question, adding this question to the census, and now introducing this executive order to collect this additional citizenship data. The recent SCOTUS decision, Supreme Court decision, to not interfere in partisan gerrymandering of voting districts is a very important issue that Trump himself actually mentioned in his press conference yesterday. So let’s listen to what he had to say about that.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP This information is also relevant to administering our elections. Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter eligible population. Indeed, the same day the Supreme Court handed down the census decision, it also said it would not review certain types of districting decisions, which could encourage states to make such decisions based on voter eligibility. With today’s order, we will collect all of the information we need to conduct an accurate census and to make responsible decisions about public policy, voting rights, and representation in Congress. In everything we do, we will faithfully represent the people of the United States of America.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN There are a couple of issues in that clip that are a little bit alarming, but the first I want to bring up is the issue of gerrymandering and apportionment. So that’s two issues actually that the Trump administration claims to address with receiving this information from various federal agencies on citizenship. What does that mean? What is the implication on gerrymandering, apportionment, and voter representation in Congress if this executive order stands?

KESHIA MORRIS So before this executive order came last night, advocates have been watching the Census Bureau’s language on this. And in fact, about 15,000 Common Cause members submitted public comments to the Census Bureau when they mentioned that they would be including data on citizenship in what’s called PL94-171, also called the redistricting file. They get sent to the states after the census is completed. We vehemently oppose any additional citizenship data beyond what’s already provided from use from the ACS to be provided in that redistricting file. It has great impacts. It gives already gerrymanderers an additional data point to gerrymander. And we also fear that some mapmakers and legislatures will use that highly-targeted citizenship data to exclude noncitizens from representation in state legislatures.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN And as we have seen in states where the GOP has participated in hyper-partisan gerrymandering, what happens is the GOP creates a voting district that is largely white and completely, almost completely, exempt of people who are not already Republican-leaning. So this is something that would be used by the GOP to further those kinds of efforts that the Supreme Court has already said it’s not going to stop. But my question also is, wouldn’t these efforts also harm African American communities or other communities that are adjacent to those people who are targeted by this additional citizenship data?

KESHIA MORRIS Absolutely. So Common Cause found in litigation that we are currently in in North Carolina about partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina, the Common Cause v. Lewis, we found some documents related exactly to that. So Thomas Hofeller, who is the chief gerrymanderer, or was the chief gerrymanderer; he passed away in 2018. We came across, we obtained about 100,000 files from his hard drives and flash drives after he passed away. And in one of those documents, he had a memo that he wrote in 2015 that basically said, you know, adding a question on citizenship to the 2020 Census form can then be used to redistrict off of citizen voting age population to cause a structural advantage for Republicans and non-Hispanic whites. So anyone that is outside of the Republican label, anyone that is outside of the non-Hispanic white label, would absolutely be affected by these policies.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN And this is just another tool basically in the continual fight to further gut the Voting Rights Act, in your estimation.

KESHIA MORRIS Absolutely, absolutely. Gerrymandering, unfortunately, has been something that’s happened since the beginning of districts. But, you know, we have gotten extremely good at it in the last, just the last few years, especially with the rise in technology. But it is not just Republicans that gerrymander. We definitely know that Democrats do it as well.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN Yes, absolutely. The interesting thing is that when Republicans gerrymander—And there were other cases where Democrats did participate in partisan gerrymandering. It was very extreme. That did result in winning some elections that were challenged in the Supreme Court. But definitely, when the GOP targets non-white, non-Hispanic populations, they know that they do that because Hispanic populations generally vote Democrat. So that’s a very interesting aspect of this issue. Something else that Trump said yesterday— and this is the last clip of Trump I will play from that press conference yesterday, I promise— that is very interesting in regard to who we are focusing on as far as who “undocumented or illegal immigrants” are in this country. Let’s listen to this interesting comment.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP As shocking as it may be, far-left Democrats in our country are determined to conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst. They probably know the number is far greater, much higher than anyone would have ever believed before. Maybe that’s why they fight so hard. This is part of a broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen. And it’s very unfair to our country.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN For most people, the focus on “illegal immigrants” is always on brown people from South and Latin American countries crossing at the border, the southern border of the United States. But the truth is, there’s a growing number of people who are overstaying their visas in the US, but most of those people are not targeted by ICE raids. As a matter of fact, none of them are. Certainly, not Border Patrol. And they’re likely not the targets of this new effort announced by Trump. Why is that, Keshia? Why is this new effort not targeting visa overstays and those people from different countries, than the ones that are being targeted who are coming across the southern border?

KESHIA MORRIS Well, the citizenship question as it stood was, I mean, it was a broad question: “Are you a citizen of the United States?” It did not to go into citizenship status, even if you check the box, “No, I’m not a citizen of the United States.” It doesn’t ask you are you undocumented, what kind of visa you have. It doesn’t do that. So Trump’s previous comments about we need to know who is legal in the United States, the citizenship question would not do that.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN This information that Trump is requesting would result in a citizenship registry, basically. And it’s interesting that the Republicans want this, but have decried registries for everything from store loyalty cards to gun purchases because they’re against big government, and they’re against what the government could do with that information. But does this alternate path to collecting the citizenship information achieve the goals of creating this citizenship registry that, by the way, has never existed in the United States, but it has existed elsewhere? What are your thoughts on that?

KESHIA MORRIS So, you know, the executive order that Trump released last night does not do what he claims that it does. It does not create a citizenship registry of folks that are illegal in the United States. The information that he requested from all executive agencies to be handed over to the Commerce Department in relation to the census, we absolutely know that census data is protected 100% through what’s called Title 13. It is one of the strongest protections that we have, privacy protections that we have in the United States. It even trumps the Patriot Act. So any data that is given to the Census Bureau is protected. That data cannot be used to harm any individual at an individual level or at an aggregate level. It is against the law.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN It’s interesting that you mentioned that this data cannot be used to harm people because it’s clear that other people realize that this was the intent of this citizenship question and now it’s quite obvious that it’s the intent to target undocumented people, to harm them, to deport them, and for other kinds of harm through just the track record of this administration. Even the National Academies of Sciences— we’re going back to the letter on the 2020 Census from the National Academies of Sciences— even they recognized last year the danger of what the Trump administration was asking for, because the third reason they cited for not recommending that the citizenship question be added to the census was that this was basically a gateway to creating a citizens registry, which doesn’t provide any statistical purposes. And under current law, as you said, the data cannot be used for nonstatistical purposes. Certainly, not for law enforcement against individuals.

 So, Keshia, at the end of the day, as much pomp and circumstance and as much media attention as this has been given— Trump’s announcement for receiving this data from federal agencies has been given— and his intentions are certainly alarming. And the willingness of federal agencies to go along with this because, as we have seen, his appointees and many employees in several federal agencies are more than willing to go along with what Donald Trump demands that they do. At the end of the day, what happens here with this information?

KESHIA MORRIS Well, you know, the purpose of this executive order was to incite fear in immigrant communities. I am here to say that, you know, immigrant communities— and I’m an immigrant myself and noncitizen myself— to not be scared to answer the census when it comes around. We, advocates at Common Cause, and the ACLU, and a myriad of other organizations will be there to fight on individuals’ behalf if this data is used for any other purpose then statistics. So the purpose of this was to incite fear, but immigrants and noncitizens should not be scared to answer the census in 2020.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN Well, I’m sure this is not the end of what we will hear and what we will see from the Trump administration in their efforts to try to gather information to harm undocumented immigrants in this country. But right now, we have to leave this discussion here because we are out of time. But I want to thank you, Keshia, for coming on the show today to talk to me about this and to illuminate this issue for us.

KESHIA MORRIS Absolutely. Thank you again for having me on.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN And thank you so much for joining me. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News in Baltimore.

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Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.