WASHINGTON - A Trump administration plan to use the census to exclude from congressional representation immigrants who are living here illegally might inadvertently exclude many U.S. citizens living under the radar in states such as Alaska, New Mexico and West Virginia.
Last week, a federal appeals court in New York blocked the administration's strategy, ruling that "the President does not have the authority to exclude illegal aliens" from congressional representation since the Constitution calls for "total population" as the basis for apportioning seats. But the ruling allowed federal work on identifying immigration status to continue, in case the ruling is overturned by a higher court.
The U.S. Census Bureau has not shared the strategy it would use to identify people living here illegally. However, it often relies on "identification by exclusion" when it can't find someone in official records such as driver's licenses and benefits that require proof of citizenship, said Todd Graham, a forecaster for the Metropolitan Council in Minneapolis-St. Paul and former chairman of the Census Bureau's state data center network.
The problem is that, like immigrants living here illegally, many U.S. citizens who live in rural or tribal areas and are wary of answering census questions also leave a limited paper trail.
In a 2014 test matching 2010 survey responses to administrative records, which can verify citizenship and legal status, the success rate for matches was less than 75% in 23 states and the District of Columbia. In the test, Census Bureau data scientists sought to match names, birthdates and addresses for people who responded to the 2010 American Community Survey to administrative data including tax returns, change of address forms and housing subsidies.
However, states with low matching rates were not generally high-immigration states with large numbers of people living here illegally. That suggests that many of the people without a paper trail were not living in the shadows because of their immigration status, but for other reasons. Of the 23 states with matching rates under 75%, only six had an above-average share of people living here illegally, according to Pew Research Center estimates. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds Stateline and the research center.)
In fact, among the top 10 states with the lowest match rates, only Arizona has above-average rates of people living here illegally, about 3.9%, according to the Pew estimates. The rest range from less than 1% in Mississippi, Montana, Vermont and West Virginia to 3.3% in Hawaii. The national average is 3.3%.
In Alaska, where the match rate is lowest, "there are a lot of towns in these vast rural areas that are off the road system," said State Demographer David Howell, so people tend not to have addresses in the usual sense or get driver's licenses that can clarify legal status.
That's one reason the Census Bureau could match only 45.6% of people and addresses in Alaska for the 2014 test, said Amy O'Hara, director of Georgetown University's Federal Statistical Research Data Center and a former Census Bureau official in charge of administrative data.
"The New Mexico and Alaska results are likely driven by the lack of city-style addresses," O'Hara said. "There are a lot of rural route and post office box addresses. That leaves the matching reliant on name and date of birth, which are less unique and often less complete and noisier."