The director of the U.S. Census did little Wednesday to reassure Democrats that President Trump is not trying to manipulate America's population count for political benefit.
Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) called an emergency hearing on the decennial count after Trump released a memo saying he would exclude undocumented immigrants when the numbers are crunched to carve out new congressional districts.
"The president’s direction is unconstitutional. It is illegal," Maloney said. "In the 230-year history of the Census, no President has ever tried to manipulate the Census count in this way."
Four former Census directors from Republican and Democratic administrations all testified that all people are supposed to be counted for apportionment.
The current director, Stephen Dillingham, declined to state such a position, saying it was not his job to comment on policy.
"I'm not going to engage in, and quite frankly, I'm not prepared to, engage in the legal analysis, or the policy debate," he said. "We're a statistical agency producing statistical products, and if they're legal we will produce them."
The Supreme Court barred the Trump administration from adding a question on citizenship to the Census, upholding lower court rulings that in one case said the question was racially motivated. Emails emerged during the case that showed Republican redistricting experts arguing a citizenship question could be used to benefit white voters and districts.
Democrats argued that Trump's move to exclude the undocumented from congressional counts would achieve the same result, and was plainly unconstitutional.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.'s delegate to Congress, quoted the Constitution, which says the apportionment of representatives is based on an actual enumeration of "the whole number" of persons.. She added the 14th Amendment, which says districts will be apportioned "according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons."
"I don't see citizens, and I don't see any other words such as voters,” she said. “You don't need a law degree of any kind, or a dictionary, to go through the exercise I have just gone through."
The one Republican witness argued that Norton was wrong when asked about her contention that the undocumented must count. He suggested she and Democrats were taking the plain language out of context.
"The people refers back to the very opening language of the Constitution -- we the people of the United States," said John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University.
He argued the undocumented should not be counted for redistricting, just as diplomats and others are not counted.
"The principle reason why we don't count such folks is they are not part of the people," he said. "They are not persons that form part of the people in the states that are the people of the United States."
Republicans argued Democrats want to count the undocumented not because the Constitution says so, but as a power-grab.
"It's all about gaining and strengthening political power for the Democratic Party and it shrugs off all norms, it shrugs off common sense, it shrugs off the law in itself," said Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).
"The right to vote is sacred," said Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.) "Democrats are attacking this very right and are trying to disenfranchise American citizens in order to gain more power."
Immigrant-heavy Democratic-leaning states such as California and New York might lose seats if Trump's reapportionment plan stands. But so would states such as Texas and Florida, which have larger undocumented populations than New York.
Democrats at the hearing also raised concerns that the administration is trying to sabotage the Census with last-minute changes, such as releasing Trump's memo and rejiggering deadlines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Director Dillingham admitted he did not learn about Trump's memo ordering him to exclude the undocumented until he read it in the newspaper.
He was also vague in promising to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to be finished.
The administration had asked for a delay until March to wrap up, as well as an additional $1 billion. But Senate Republicans in talks with the White House on COVID measures are only offering $442 million, and have so far left out any extension. Counting has already been delayed because of the pandemic.
"My anxiety here is that the administration originally seemed to be reasonably accommodating," said Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). "Now we're hearing that they're looking for money to push the process forward in what I'm concerned would be a very premature way."
Minorities and poor people tend to be the hardest Americans to reach in the Census. Ending it prematurely would likely lead to a count that disproportionately excludes them, while exaggerating wealthier, whiter suburban communities.