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Trump Plan to Remove Immigrants Without Legal Status From Census Could Still Happen -- What It Means For LA

The Supreme Court of the United States, pictured Aug. 3, 2017. (Liam James Doyle/NPR)
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What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for things like health care, public education, even disaster planning. Political representation in Sacramento and D.C. A census undercount could cut critical resources in L.A. County, home to the largest hard-to-count population in the nation.

In a ruling Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court order that blocked the Trump Administration from changing how the census is tallied when it comes to allocating political power.

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The plan, outlined in President Trump's apportionment memo released this summer, would in practice delete the 2020 Census responses of people living in the U.S. without legal immigration status from state population totals. That matters because those totals are used to divvy up seats in Congress.

If this were to happen, California and L.A. County could lose out big: It's estimated that roughly 2 million immigrants without legal status make California their home; as many as 900,000 are believed to reside in the county.


The high court did not rule on the constitutionality of Trump's plan. The decision from the majority of justices instead found that the case is not yet ripe for the court to get involved. Why not? The court said it was not yet clear what specific harms would come from it.

So for now, the government has free rein to attempt the policy -- but it's not clear how fully the U.S. Census Bureau could implement it. There is no hard data on how many immigrants without legal status reside in the U.S., only estimates.

Demographers have predicted, though, that if the administration did find a way to subtract these immigrants from the population totals, it would suppress the political representation of states like California, since it's home to such a large number of immigrants without legal status.


Here's how that would work in California. If it was determined that all of the estimated 2 million people living in the state without legal status responded to the census -- and they were removed from the count -- -- the state could be at risk of losing political power.

Keep in mind that 2 million estimate is a larger number than the total populations for more than a dozen states.

The L.A. area is already at risk of losing a congressional seat once existing 2020 Census numbers are tallied. Los Angeles also faces a likely undercount once the census data is tallied.

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In oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court, a lawyer for the government conceded that the policy probably wouldn't work out like that.

"I think it is very unlikely that the Bureau will be able to identify all or substantially all illegal aliens present in the country," said Jeffrey Wall, acting U.S. Solicitor General.

He said the government might just identify immigrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. The number of immigrants held by ICE represent a far smaller number, in the tens of thousands.


Still, these are only predictions. The Supreme Court wants facts.

"At present, this case is riddled with contingencies and speculation that impede judicial review," the majority opinion reads.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, said it's normal for the justices to wait and see how a plan plays out.

"They don't exist to answer questions in the abstract," Levitt said.

By January, the harm should be more clear: That's when the Census Bureau plans to release two sets of apportionment tallies for congressional seats -- one excluding undocumented people, and one including the whole number of persons in each state.

Then, Levitt said, this case will likely heat up and be heard by the Supreme Court once again.

"The engine's already idling, the car's already on, so all we gotta do is step in and drive," Levitt said. He said he expects the plaintiffs and arguments to stay largely the same.

Another contingency: the Census Bureau may release these apportionment numbers after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 10. In internal documents, Bureau officials have identified data processing anomalies that could delay their results until January 26, or later.

This summer, Biden condemned President Trump's apportionment policy and, as president, Biden would have the authority to completely throw it out.


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