Senate Confirms Robert Santos, Mexican American First Person of Color to Lead Census Bureau

The Senate approved Robert Santos as the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday, making him the first person of color to lead the agency, the Associated Press reported. Santos is a third-generation Mexican American statistician from San Antonio, former president of the American Statistical Association and former vice president and chief methodologist for the Urban Institute.

Santos, 66, will be responsible for overseeing the agency that conducts the massive once-a-decade count and other surveys that provide insight on the intricate details of the U.S. population. He will also assume the role as the bureau begins to prepare for the 2030 census and recovers from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Santos spoke about his passion for statistics and for helping others during his confirmation hearing, the AP reported.

"Those opportunities that I've had allowed me to believe that I should pay it forward, and I've tried to do that every day of my life," Santos said. "Census Bureau data helps weave us together to form a more perfect union. Although this is a political position, I'm not a politician."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

New Census Bureau Director Confirmed
The Senate has confirmed Robert Santos as the next U.S. Census Bureau director, November 4. As a third-generation Mexican American, he will be the first person of color to lead the nation’s largest statistical agency on a permanent basis. Above, Santos, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, July 15, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Santos' predecessor, Steven Dillingham, retired from the bureau last January, in the middle of data crunching for the 2020 census, while facing criticism that he was acceding to former President Donald Trump's demand to produce citizenship information at the expense of data quality.

Bureau workers were under significant pressure from two Trump political appointees to figure out who was in the U.S. illegally using federal and state administrative records, and Dillingham, also a Trump appointee, set a deadline for bureau statisticians to provide him with a technical report on the effort, according to the Office of Inspector General. The effort to gather citizenship information was abandoned a short time later.

At the time, Dillingham described the events as a misunderstanding and said there were no potential violations of laws or regulations.

During Dillingham's tenure, the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census questionnaire and named a handful of political appointees that statisticians and Democratic lawmakers worried would politicize the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident. The president also issued two directives that advocacy groups said were part of efforts to suppress the participation of minorities and immigrants in the 2020 census.

After Dillingham left, the agency's chief operating officer, Ron Jarmin, assumed the director's duties on an interim basis. Santos will fill the remainder of Dillingham's term, which expires at the end of the year, and then start a new five-year term.

After Santos was confirmed, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer described him as a "perfect fit" for the job.

"He is exactly the kind of person our country needs overseeing our Census—an impartial, highly experienced professional from outside politics," Schumer said.

Santos told senators during his confirmation hearing that the Census Bureau needs more independence and transparency to build public trust in the statistical agency and that the agency's career staff needed nurturing after enduring "a tumultuous 2020."

The 2020 census experienced unprecedented obstacles because of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as wildfires in the West and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. The pandemic forced the Census Bureau to delay until April the release of state population numbers used to apportion congressional seats. The release of redistricting data used for drawing congressional and legislative districts was postponed until August.

Looking ahead to the next census in 2030, Santos said he would be in favor of a proposal that never got off the ground before the last census—combining the questions about race and Hispanic origin. A previous study by the Census Bureau showed that doing so would increase response rates by Hispanics, who may be unsure how to answer the race question because they often are from mixed race and ethnic backgrounds.

The Office of Budget and Management (OMB) had considered pairing the questions for the 2020 census, but the Trump administration decided to keep the race question separate from the ethnicity one.

"I can use my own personal perspective as a Latino, and I can use my research experience and my leadership position, to work with OMB to make sure that the proper attention is given to that specific issue," Santos said.

Santos is the first person of color to be confirmed as Census Bureau director on a permanent basis. James Holmes, who is African American, was named acting director on a temporary basis in 1998 after the resignation of Martha Riche.

New Census Bureau Director
Robert Santos will be responsible for overseeing the U.S. Census Bureau, which conducts the massive once-a-decade count and other surveys that provide insight on the intricate details of the U.S. population. A letter from the Census Bureau regarding the 2020 Census is seen in San Ramon, California, April 24, 2020. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images