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Trump Wants To Change Who Counts For Dividing Up Congress' Seats

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today President Trump released a memo calling for a change in how the country divides up its congressional seats. For more than 200 years, that formula has been based on the total number of people living in the country - the total number. But Trump wants unauthorized immigrants thrown out of that count. The move is more likely to spark legal challenges than an actual change. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on all things census related and joins us now from New York.

Hey, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell me a little more about what the president's memo actually says.

WANG: This memo directs the commerce secretary, who oversees the Census Bureau, to include in the legally required report of census results information that would allow the president to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census numbers used for reapportioning congressional seats. But based on the memo, it's not clear exactly how this will be done. But it does refer to an executive order President Trump issued a year ago after the federal courts blocked him from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. That order directed federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, to share records about citizenship with the bureau to produce anonymized data about citizens, noncitizens and now unauthorized immigrants.

KELLY: Now, I'm a little confused because I thought this was all spelled out in the Constitution. Does the president actually have the power to make a change like this?

WANG: The Constitution says it is Congress, not the president, who has final authority over the census. Congress has delegated to the president power to officially deliver the apportionment count from the Census Bureau to Congress. But the fifth sentence of the Constitution, which spells out how the census is to be conducted, refers to persons - no mention of citizens. And the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War - after the ending of counting of enslaved people, enslaved person as three-fifths of a person - the 14th Amendment, which now stands, says the whole number of persons in each state must be counted in order to determine each state's share of congressional seats.

KELLY: What kind of reaction are you hearing so far to this announcement by President Trump?

WANG: You hear from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that the House of Representatives will respond and will not let this happen essentially. You have the lawyer from the ACLU, which was one of the main legal groups leading the charge against the citizenship question, saying we will see the Trump administration in court. And you know, it's also interesting - there is an ongoing federal lawsuit in Alabama. And you have the state attorney general there, Steve Marshall, praising this decision by President Trump because it matches with what Alabama is trying to do, which is to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the apportionment count. They're suing the federal government right now - actually, the Trump administration - a very complicated case. And it's an ongoing federal lawsuit. The state of Alabama says it's trying to avoid losing a seat in Congress based on counts that do include unauthorized immigrants.

KELLY: Just in the few seconds we have left, the 2020 census is already underway. Counting is underway. What could a memo like this mean for the count?

WANG: This could have a real chilling effect on the about 4 out of 10 households roughly nationwide that have yet to be counted. The Census Bureau is trying very hard to reach out to those households, trying to convince them to trust the government, to release their personal information. And there are federal laws that protect personally identifiable to keep it confidential for 72 years. But hearing that there is a memo by President Trump about unauthorized immigrants, that could really make people think twice about participating at this point.

KELLY: That was NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reporting.

Thank you.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.