Biden nominates first Latino to lead Census Bureau

Prominent statistician Robert Santos was both a Trump critic and census insider in the last administration

The U.S. Census Bureau has been without a permanent director since Steven Dillingham resigned in January. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The U.S. Census Bureau has been without a permanent director since Steven Dillingham resigned in January. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 13, 2021 at 4:40pm

President Joe Biden on Tuesday named prominent statistician Robert Santos to lead the U.S. Census Bureau, as the agency tries to wrap up a much-delayed decennial count.

Santos, a vice president at the Urban Institute and president of the American Statistical Association, would be the first Latino to head the agency if confirmed by the Senate. He would take over a Commerce Department agency currently months behind on work to finish the 2020 census, with results delayed until as late as September.

Santos could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday. If confirmed, he would be the agency’s first permanent leader since former Director Steven Dillingham resigned at the close of the Trump administration in January. 

Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo has defended the decision to delay delivery of 2020 census results, telling White House reporters last week that the pandemic, natural disasters and other problems made for “once in a lifetime” delays.

Census Bureau officials have promised to deliver congressional apportionment data by the end of this month, with redistricting figures coming as late as the end of September because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic and decisions by the Trump administration.

Republican senators may use Santos’ nomination to lob further criticism at the anticipated delay of census results. At a hearing last month, they pressed acting Director Ron Jarmin to deliver data sooner.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, urged the Census Bureau to add more staff to the process, calling it “nonsensical” when Jarmin responded that training new staff would only add to delays. Ohio has sued in federal court to force early release of the figures.

“We have constitutional requirements that may lead us to not be able to use your data, which is just unheard of,” Portman said.

Santos, who has worked on surveys and census issues for decades, served on a census advisory committee for five years. In 2019, while at the Urban Institute, he helped author a report that said the 2020 census has the highest risk of an undercount for minorities since 1990.

Santos was also one of the loudest critics of Trump administration moves, like adding political appointees to the agency or cutting short the decennial count last fall. Santos also served as part of a group of experts organized by the American Statistical Association to examine census methods and accuracy as part of the 2020 count.

For months, Santos warned that efforts to interfere with or curtail the count could lead to undercounts of traditionally hard-to-count communities such as immigrants, the homeless and communities of color.

While in the job, Santos may find himself implementing decisions he disagreed with previously. Santos has criticized the application of new privacy protections, called differential privacy, that use an algorithm to change small amounts of data and anonymize census responses.

Many advocates and data scientists agreed with Santos, saying the agency’s application of differential privacy could make the data unusable.

Alabama has sued in federal court to force the early release of census data as well as challenge the application of differential privacy. The state argued that that process would make data unusable for drawing maps.