Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A GOP plan for the census would revive Trump's failed push for a citizenship question

A recorded video message by then-President Donald Trump plays at a 2019 naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee
A recorded video message by then-President Donald Trump plays at a 2019 naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Miami.

A coalition of conservative groups is preparing for a chance to shape the country's next set of census results in case a Republican president returns to the White House in 2025.

Their playbook includes reviving a failed push for a citizenship question and other Trump-era moves that threaten the accuracy of the 2030 national head count.

The plan also calls for aligning the mission of the government agency in charge of the next tally of the country's residents with "conservative principles." Many census watchers, including a former top Trump administration official, tell NPR they find this position particularly alarming.

The policy proposals — led by The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank — are part of a broader "Project 2025" plan for dismantling aspects of the U.S. government. "For too long, conservative presidents' agendas have been stymied by liberal bureaucrats who put their own agenda over that of the President, whom they serve," Paul Dans, a former Trump appointee who is Project 2025's director, claims in a statement.

Since the plan's release in April, most public attention has focused on its climate policy and calls to expand the president's power over federal agencies. But 2025 marks a pivotal year for one particular and often-neglected agency — the Census Bureau.

The federal government's largest statistical agency is about to start a critical planning period for the upcoming once-a-decade count. Decisions expected to be made during the next administration, including what census questions to ask and how, will have long-lasting effects on the statistics used to divvy up congressional seats and Electoral College votes, redraw voting districts for every level of government, inform policymaking and research, and guide more than $2.8 trillion a year in federal money for public services across the country.

If former President Donald Trump or another Republican candidate is elected in 2024, many census watchers are bracing for a potential sequel to the years of interference that muddled the last tally in 2020.

Why do these conservative groups want a citizenship question?

It's not clear exactly why these conservative groups want the next census to ask for the U.S. citizenship status of every person living in every household in the United States.

Research by the bureau has shown that including the question "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" on forms is likely to discourage many households with Latino or Asian American residents from getting counted in official population totals.

The bureau's annual American Community Survey already produces estimates of U.S. citizens, which are used to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

And a future Republican administration could, as the Trump administration tried to, seek citizenship data from an alternate source — government records. The agency's researchers said those would be more accurate and less costly to use than people's self-reported answers. (President Biden stopped that work in 2021.)

Still, Thomas Gilman — a former Chrysler executive who, during the Trump administration, served as chief financial officer for the bureau's parent agency, the Commerce Department — writes in the Project 2025's policy guide: "Any successful conservative Administration must include a citizenship question in the census."

Gilman declined NPR's interview requests through a Heritage Foundation spokesperson and did not respond to written questions. The Heritage Foundation also did not make any representatives available to be interviewed for this report.

During the Trump administration, a citizenship question was part of a secret strategy to alter a key set of census numbers, the 2020 release of a presidential memo and, later, internal documents confirmed. Those numbers are used every 10 years to reapportion each state's share of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College.

According to the14th Amendment, the congressional apportionment numbers must include the "whole number of persons in each state." But Trump officials wanted to make the unprecedented move of excluding unauthorized immigrants.

In public, however, the Trump administration claimed to want a citizenship question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act's protections against the discrimination of racial and language minorities — a justification the Supreme Court found appeared to be "contrived."

In court, groups that sued over the proposed question pointed to another reason that remains a potential motivating factor for a future GOP administration — neighborhood-block level citizenship data that could be used to draw voting districts that a Republican redistricting mastermind said would be "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."

That kind of data would be key to a legal dispute that the Supreme Court left unresolved in 2016: whether it is legal for states to redraw legislative districts based on the number of citizens old enough to vote rather than of all residents in an area.

Would Trump, if reelected, try again for a citizenship question?

It's an open question whether Trump, if reelected, would make another go for a citizenship question. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Hermann Habermann — a former deputy director of the bureau who testified in court against the Trump administration's citizenship question push — sees echoes of that failed effort embedded within the Project 2025 plan. It repeats a misleading Trump-era talking point that appears to reference the United Nations Statistics Division's census recommendations: "Asking a citizenship question is considered best practice even by the United Nations."

"I don't think they've read properly what it says there," says Habermann about how Project 2025 interprets recommendations he helped write while serving as the director of the U.N. Statistics Division. "It doesn't say thou shalt do this. It recommends that citizenship be one of the areas that is looked at. The U.S. does look at citizenship at the block-group level through the American Community Survey. So we do it. We just don't do it at the block level. And so the question always became, why is that necessary?"

How a Republican administration answers that question could be the focus of another round of lawsuits, says Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented some of the groups that sued the Trump administration over its citizenship question push.

"I've never heard articulated a justification for the citizenship question that is not fairly obviously a veil to disguise racial and partisan intent," Saenz says.

Still, in the Biden years, GOP calls to add a census citizenship question and alter the congressional apportionment numbers have not gone away. In July, House Republicans released a draft funding bill that would have banned the bureau from using the money to include unauthorized immigrants in future counts used to divide up House seats.

These conservative groups also have a "conservative agenda" for the Census Bureau

While the Project 2025 plan also outlines garden-variety presidential transition moves such as reviewing budgets and eliminating duplicative census operations, there are other proposals that many census watchers find troubling.

They call for more political appointee positions at the bureau, which has largely been run by career civil servants.

"Strong political leadership is needed to increase efficiency and align the Census Bureau's mission with conservative principles," Gilman, the former Commerce Department CFO, writes, adding there's a need to have "both committed political appointees and like-minded career employees" in place to "execute a conservative agenda" as soon as the next Republican president takes office.

During its final months in office, the Trump administration installed four additional political appointees without any past experience at the agency or obvious qualifications for joining the highest ranks. In a 2020 email, the bureau's top civil servant raised concerns that the appointees showed an "unusually" high level of "engagement in technical matters, which is unprecedented relative to the previous censuses." After an investigation, an official from the Government Accountability Office told Congress that the appointees ultimately "did not have undue influence into the operations of the census." Their exact responsibilities, however, remain murky.

Habermann, the former deputy director at the bureau, sees any similar return of this Trump-era move as "the first step to having a set of statistics which the people, the nation will not trust."

"Some of us would believe that the function of statistics is, if you will, the lifeblood of a democracy," Habermann adds. "The idea of statistics agencies is to produce reliable, unbiased, trustworthy information that the nation can use in making its decisions and in understanding itself. They want the statistics agency to be a mouthpiece, if you will, for the Republican administration."

Their plan includes delaying potential changes to how the census asks about race and ethnicity

The plan also criticizes an ongoing review by the White House's Office of Management and Budget of how the census and federal government surveys ask about people's racial and ethnic identities. Ahead of the 2020 census, Trump officials stalled that process, which has been driven by years of research by the bureau into how to better reflect the country's ever-shifting diversity.

The bureau has found that many people of Middle Eastern or North African descent do not identify as white, which is how the federal government officially categorizes them. The agency has also been tracking the rise of a catch-all checkbox known as "Some other race," now the second-largest racial category in the U.S. after "White." It's mainly the result of the difficulty many Latinos face when answering a census question about their race that does not include a checkbox for "Hispanic" or "Latino," which the government considers to be an ethnicity that can be of any race.

Based on their testing, the bureau's researchers have recommended combining the questions about race and ethnicity into one and adding a checkbox for "Middle Eastern or North African." OMB is expected to announce decisions on those proposals by summer 2024.

Project 2025's plan, however, calls for a Republican administration to "take control of this process and thoroughly review any changes" because of "concerns among conservatives that the data under Biden Administration proposals could be skewed to bolster progressive political agendas."

Meeta Anand, senior program director of census and data equity at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says any attempts to modify or roll back changes would be a movement away from accuracy and "truly understanding who we are as a nation."

"If you were to have a stop and say, 'Let's review the questions again. Let's conduct another research test,' we would need to see appropriations for the Census Bureau to be able to do that. They would need to mount another test all over again. And there's no way it would be done in time for 2030," Anand adds. "Census advocates were trying to get revisions in place for the 2020 census, and that just never happened."

The plan's emphasis on a "conservative" approach to the census is raising concerns, including from a former top Trump official

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House oversight subcommittee for the census who served on former President Barack Obama's presidential transition team on census issues, sees the plan's call to get rid of at least one of the bureau's committees of outside advisers as a way to reduce transparency about how the agency produces the country's statistics.

"This really is sort of undermining all of the principles and practices that federal statistical agencies should be following. And that is extremely troubling," says Lowenthal, who is now a census consultant.

For Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, one of the few vocal census advocates in Congress, Project 2025's proposals run counter to his attempts to shield the bureau from further interference through new legislation.

"This is a clear partisan effort to force an undercount of communities of color. It's unlawful and unconstitutional," Schatz says in a statement.

Then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before a House subcommittee on March 10, 2020. "I don't think the census should try to shade things in any political direction," Ross, who led the Trump administration's failed push for a census citizenship question, told NPR this month.
Andrew Harnik / AP
Then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before a House subcommittee on March 10, 2020. "I don't think the census should try to shade things in any political direction," Ross, who led the Trump administration's failed push for a census citizenship question, told NPR this month.

The plan's call to carry out a "conservative agenda" at the bureau is also catching public criticism from a less likely source: former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The former top Trump administration official pushed for a citizenship question while overseeing the bureau, and an investigation by the Commerce Department's Office of Inspector General found that Ross "misrepresented the full rationale" for adding a citizenship question when testifying before Congress in 2018. During the Trump administration, the findings were presented to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute Ross.

"I think that the job of the census is to provide data. If the elected officials want to interpret that one way or another, well, that's OK. That's their prerogative. I don't think the census should try to shade things in any political direction," said Ross, who declined to answer questions about a citizenship question but said he believes it is "a valid question."

On whether there should be more political appointees at the bureau, Ross said it's not a question he has "really thought about" but noted: "To the degree that the implication was that the census should be more politicized, I do not agree with that."

Ross said that until NPR contacted him, he was not aware of Project 2025's census proposals written by Gilman, who served under Ross as the Commerce Department's CFO.

"I'm frankly a little bit surprised that he regards himself as an expert on what actually happens in terms of the census. I don't recall him being that involved in the whole process," Ross said.

For Lowenthal, the census consultant who is a longtime watcher of the national head count, Project 2025's census recommendations mark a notable shift in the right wing's approach.

"I have not seen anything remotely like these proposals in this document coming out of previous Republican administrations," Lowenthal says. "I think that the author or authors of this document clearly understand that if you control the production and flow of information, you can control how people view their government, the actions their government is taking or not taking and their view of the world around them. These proposals should raise alarm bells, I think, for anyone worried about the future."

Editor's note: Project 2025's plan also proposes to end public funding for NPR, which, on average, receives less than 1% of its annual budget from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Edited by Benjamin Swasey

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.