WASHINGTON -- After failing to get his citizenship question on the census, President Donald Trump now says his fallback plan will provide an even more accurate count -- determining the citizenship of 90 percent of the population "or more." But his plan will likely be limited by logistical hurdles and legal restrictions.
Trump wants to distill a massive trove of data across seven government agencies -- and possibly across 50 states. It's far from clear how such varying systems can be mined, combined and compared.
He directed the Commerce Department, which manages the census, to form a working group.
"The logistical barriers are significant, if not insurmountable," said Paul Light, a senior fellow of Governance Studies at New York University with a long history of research in government reform. "The federal government does not invest, and hasn't been investing for a long time, in the kind of data systems and recruitment of experts that this kind of database construction would require."
Trump says he aims to answer how many people are here illegally, though there already are recent estimates , and possibly use such information to divvy up congressional seats based on citizenship. It's also a way for Trump to show his base that he's not backing down (even as he's had to back down) from a battle over the question on his signature topic, immigration.
The administration faced challenges last year when it was tasked by a federal judge with quickly creating a system to track migrant families that had been separated by immigration officials. They found agency systems weren't compatible.
"Information-sharing is not a habit of federal agencies," Light said.
Trump's plan is aimed at yet-again circumventing legal challenges on an immigration related matter, as courts have barred him from inquiring about citizenship on the 2020 census.
But it could spark further legal action, depending on what his administration intends to do with the citizenship information.
His executive order announced Thursday requires highly detailed information, including national-level files of all lawful permanent residents, Customs and Border arrival and departure data and Social Security Administration master beneficiary records. Plus information on Medicaid and children's health systems and refugee and asylum visas.
The order states that "generating accurate data concerning the total number of citizens, non-citizens and illegal aliens in the country has nothing to do with enforcing immigration laws against particular individuals," and that information would be used "solely to produce statistics" and would not be used to "bring immigration enforcement actions against particular individuals."
Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project who argued the citizenship question case at the Supreme Court, said the main privacy concern now would be disclosure of individuals' citizenship status.
Federal law bars the Census Bureau from disclosing an individual's responses to the census. But Ho said that if the bureau can produce citizenship information in small geographical bites, it could inadvertently expose a person's citizenship status.