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Trump, Census Bureau collect driver's license data to check citizenship status of Americans

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 7/16/2020 Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY

The Trump administration has begun gathering driver's license data from at least four states as it seeks to count how many undocumented people live in the USA, a top priority for the president as he argues for tougher border controls.

The president said citizenship data is basic information that any country's leaders should have access to. Critics worry Trump and conservative officials would use that data to financially or politically punish liberal states that are home to large numbers of people living in the USA without authorization, particularly California.

National Public Radio first reported the Trump administration's move to collect data from four states: Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina and South Dakota.

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Driver's license data – even limited to names, addresses and birthdates – is widely seen as a potential proxy for citizenship or lawful U.S. residence because the federal government's REAL ID driver's license law requires proof that someone is living legally in the USA.

The U.S. Census Bureau leads the effort to acquire the data, which it could cross-reference with federal or privately run databases, such as those used to generate credit reports, to build a more accurate picture of residents. Participation in the data collection by states is voluntary, and using census data to target specific individuals is illegal.

a sign on the side of the road: Iowa is asking residents returning from outside the state to self-quarantine for 14 days. © Thinkstock/Getty Images Iowa is asking residents returning from outside the state to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Trump said in an executive order issued July 11, 2019, that getting accurate data concerning the total number of citizens and undocumented immigrants "has nothing to do with enforcing immigration laws against particular individuals. It is important, instead, for making broad policy determinations." 

Estimates, based on surveys and data analysis by federal officials and university experts, suggest 11 million to 30 million people have entered the USA illegally, overstayed visas or otherwise violated the nation's borders.

The Iowa Department of Transportation began sharing driver's license data with the Census Bureau in April, a spokeswoman said. The information it shares does not include a person's sex, race or citizenship status. Because only people with permission to live in the USA can get an Iowa driver's license, the data is a de facto list of citizens and documented residents. The spokeswoman said Iowa shared the data because doing so is legal and because the Census Bureau asked for it.

Trump issued the executive order shortly after the Supreme Court blocked his administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Though citizenship questions have long been part of the overall census, federal officials stopped asking that specific question on the constitutionally mandated every-10-year count in 1950. After that, they began using surveys and statistical sampling, which officials argued were more accurate.

Trump's executive order instructs federal officials to do a better job sharing citizenship information with each other and estimates the government will be able to determine citizenship status for 90% of the population using a combination of state and federal data. His goal is 100%, he said.

Immigrant rights groups argue that asking any question about citizenship status creates fear within immigrant communities, including people living in the USA legally, and could contribute to an undercount of certain populations.

The accuracy of census data has broad implications for how federal spending is allocated and how states design legislative and congressional districts, said Tom Wolf, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. Depressing the number of people who respond could have a decade-long impact on whose voices are heard in Congress. Since California is home to the largest number of people living in the USA without permission, any changes could have wide-ranging effects there. 

"The Trump administration’s data gathering also threatens to suppress the count, because even though this information cannot be used for things like immigration or criminal law enforcement, mere mention of data gathering like this leads people to fear that they’re at risk," Wolf said. "Crucially, it is patently illegal to use the personal data that the Census Bureau gathers for immigration or law enforcement purposes. If the administration tries to use this data for illegal means, a nationwide network of attorneys is ready to go to court, and the law is clearly on their side."

Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said the Census Bureau should focus on accurately counting everyone, regardless of their immigration status, a challenge increased by the COVID-19 outbreak. The ACLU urges states to reject requests to share driver's license data with the federal government for any citizenship determinations.

“This endeavor appears to be part of a scheme motivated by an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose to dilute the political power of communities of color. In addition, efforts to rely on citizenship data in DMV files have previously been highly unreliable due to poor database protocols and stale citizenship data," he said. "The Census Bureau should drop this latest distraction and instead focus on the important work of ensuring a full and accurate count during this very challenging time in the midst of a pandemic.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump, Census Bureau collect driver's license data to check citizenship status of Americans

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