Trump's Census Bid To Omit Undocumented Immigrants Had Ties To FAIR The Trump administration tried and failed to accomplish a long-held desire of immigration hard-liners — a count of unauthorized immigrants to reshape Congress, the Electoral College and public policy.

Immigration Hard-Liner Files Reveal 40-Year Bid Behind Trump's Census Obsession

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/967783477/974706049" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump had an unusual fixation on the U.S. census during his time in office. NPR's census correspondent Hansi Lo Wang has uncovered the hidden history behind Trump's agenda.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Until its final months in office, there was a lingering mystery behind the Trump administration's obsession over the 2020 census. Why did it want to use the form all households are required to fill out to directly ask for the U.S. citizenship status of every person living in the country?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: It is essential that we have a clear breakdown of the number of citizens and noncitizens that make up the U.S. populations - imperative.

WANG: In 2019, Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden defeated. The Supreme Court had blocked his administration's plan to add a citizenship question because the court found that its explanation for the question appeared to be contrived.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Hello. Listen to this one.

WANG: And so did the late Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland during a 2018 hearing in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUMMINGS: They want to protect the rights of voters in our country, and they need this new data to do it. Give me a break.

WANG: Cummings and other census advocates suspected Trump officials had other motives. Many argue the question was originally intended to depress participation among households with noncitizens, Latinos, Asian Americans and other groups wary of sharing their citizenship status, and that would jeopardize the Constitution's requirement to count, once a decade, every person living in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CUMMINGS: Not citizens, not immigrants - persons.

WANG: But to Roger Conner, it was so obvious Trump officials had another goal in mind. Conner remembers following the news and asking...

ROGER CONNER: Why can't someone figure out what's going on? I assume that's because they thought it was not in their interest to let everybody know what their strategy was.

WANG: It was the kind of strategy Conner helped form as the first executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform - also known as FAIR - more than 40 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In 80 million mailboxes across the USA, the census is a-coming to help us plan the way.

WANG: Weeks before public service announcements about the 1980 census, like this one, rolled out, FAIR sued to get a citizenship question on every census form. These days, FAIR has become the most influential advocate for extreme restrictions on immigration. But back in 1979, FAIR was just getting started and looking for ways to bring attention to illegal immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIRK DOUGLAS: Help your community get equal government representation.

WANG: FAIR's lawsuit argued that the Census Bureau should use a citizenship question to help produce a count of unauthorized immigrants. FAIR wanted those numbers subtracted from what are known as the census apportionment counts. Those state population numbers determine how many votes in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College each state gets. And in 1980...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB EDWARDS: Today is Tuesday, April 1, and this is NPR's MORNING EDITION.

WANG: ...FAIR wanted unauthorized immigrants excluded from those census numbers for the first time in U.S. history, as Roger Conner explained to NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CONNER: We're not against those people, but we are in favor of a controlled level of immigration into the United States.

WANG: For FAIR, this census fight was a way to take power and influence over public policy away from unauthorized immigrants and the states where they live by radically reshaping Congress and the Electoral College. At the time, more and more people living inside the U.S. were born elsewhere, and a predominantly white population was becoming less so...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: The days of unlimited immigration are past.

WANG: ...after President Lyndon Johnson ended an immigration system based on race and ancestry by signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: But those who do come will come because of what they are and not because of the land from which they sprung.

WANG: That law helped usher in a rise in immigration, both legal and illegal, from Latin America, Asia and other parts of the world. And it led to the creation of FAIR, whose founder once wrote a memo warning of a, quote, "Latin onslaught."

ARNOLDO TORRES: What they were trying to stop was the browning of America.

WANG: Arnoldo Torres was a vocal critic of FAIR's policies as the executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens during the early 1980s. FAIR filed two census lawsuits. Both were thrown out of court. But the group did not give up its argument that unauthorized immigrants should be left out of counts that, according to the Constitution, must include, quote, "the whole number of persons in each state."

TORRES: They were in for the long haul. They knew they're not going to get it right away, but they knew eventually that the tide would change.

WANG: For four decades, FAIR has conducted a campaign that also includes lobbying Congress and presidential administrations. Antonia Hernández, another opponent of FAIR and a former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says that with no comprehensive immigration reform...

ANTONIA HERNÁNDEZ: It just gained steam and gained steam and gained steam. And then it came to, you know, the situation with - what's his face? - Trump.

WANG: Last July, Trump himself confirmed his administration's push for a citizenship question was indeed tied to an effort to exclude unauthorized immigrants from census apportionment counts. In a presidential memo, Trump put out a plan outlining the same strategy FAIR developed.

HERNÁNDEZ: What they haven't been yet able to do through the courts they've been able to do through the executive branch.

WANG: Trump's White House press office did not respond to NPR's questions about whether officials consulted with FAIR on altering apportionment counts, but FAIR's current president, Dan Stein, says...

DAN STEIN: It's very possible we discussed it early on. It was certainly part of our legislative plan for the new administration back in November of 2016.

WANG: Trump's plan has been revoked by President Biden. Stein says FAIR remains committed to its census campaign. But for Roger Conner, FAIR's first executive director, who left the group in the late 1980s, it's long past time to stop trying to exclude unauthorized immigrants.

CONNER: When you say, we the people of the United States, you have to include them.

WANG: And Conner condemns the Trump administration for carrying on FAIR's census agenda.

CONNER: I can only understand it as a pure expression of racism and evil. And yet I have to own I took this same position 40 years ago.

WANG: It's a position that remains unsettled at the Supreme Court, which decided not to rule on Trump's plan. That left open the question - could FAIR's campaign go further if a future president has the same ambitions?

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Can we count on you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You can count on me.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.