Government

Iowa among states sharing driver's license data with feds to help sort out citizenship status

Effort would help the Trump administration determine citizenship status of U.S. residents

Informational pamphlets are seen at the Iowa Department of Transportation Driver's License Station in Cedar Rapids on Tu
Informational pamphlets are seen at the Iowa Department of Transportation Driver's License Station in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Iowa, South Carolina and South Dakota have joined Nebraska in agreeing to share state driver’s license information with the U.S. Census Bureau to help the Trump administration to determine the citizenship status of every U.S. resident.

Until recently, Nebraska had been the sole state to sign an agreement with the Census Bureau to share the information. President Donald Trump ordered the Census Bureau last year to gather citizenship data from the administrative records of federal and state agencies after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked his administration’s effort to place a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire.

The overwhelming majority of states have refused to share information about driver’s licenses and ID cards. The governors of the four cooperating states are Republicans. Their cooperation was first reported by NPR.

Iowa began sending its data to the Census Bureau in March. In Iowa, only citizens or residents in the country legally can get a driver’s license or ID card so citizenship status isn’t included in its information.

Opponents of gathering the citizenship data worry it will be used by states and local governments to redraw legislative boundaries using only U.S. citizens instead of the entire population. Doing so would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites, according to opponents.

Citizenship information in motor vehicle agencies typically is unreliable given that there is no reason for lawful residents to notify motor vehicle agencies when they become citizens, said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

MALDEF is one of several civil rights groups challenging Trump’s order in federal court in Maryland.

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“Their task is to create a nationwide database, so having three relatively small states provide them records doesn’t get them very far as to what they want to do. They need a nationwide database,” Saenz said. “I don’t know what it shows other than if I were in one of those states, I would be angry that the state is offering up my information without my permission.”

The Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, says it has enough administrative records to determine the citizenship of almost 90 percent of the U.S. population, and records collected for the order would only fill in the remaining gaps

The agreement with South Carolina was signed earlier this month, and the Census Bureau is paying South Carolina $27,000 for the data. South Carolina law allows the sharing of information if it’s for carrying out “legitimate government agency functions,” Julie Roy, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, said in an email.

South Dakota signed an agreement with the Census Bureau in April requiring it to send monthly driver’s license information including names, addresses, birth dates and citizenship status. Since it requires proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful immigration status, South Dakota does not allow people who are in the country illegally to get a driver’s license or ID card.

The data is to be used “solely for statistical purposes and not for program or administrative enforcement,” according to the South Dakota agreement. Similar language is used in the agreements with Iowa and South Carolina. The agreements also limit the Census Bureau from sharing the data with other agencies.

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