Obscured in the flurry of President Donald Trump’s executive orders in his first two weeks in office are those orders’ numerous requests for reports and data, some of which ask for information already collected by federal agencies or raise broader questions about the goals of the information gathering.
In general, it is not uncommon for presidents to ask for the collection of certain types of data as part of an executive order.
“Presidents actually use executive orders as a means to instruct agencies to do something,” said John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “In some cases, that’s a very forward action. In other cases, it is a means for a president to very publicly get information that he needs.”
As part of any federal process or policy program, there are reporting requirements, Hudak said. Trump’s requests for reports are indicative of an interest in getting data he currently does not have access to or is a means to make a political point.
Similar directives were issued by previous presidents. For example, former President Barack Obama issued executive orders around detention to study enemy combatant detention when he was determining how to close Guantanamo Bay prison. Those were not orders to change policy, but a way for the president to say what he would like to do and ask the government to produce more information about the subject, Hudak said.
The most detailed use of such requests can be found in Trump’s executive order titled, “ Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” an order regarding the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
A provision in that executive order asks the attorney general to “collect relevant data and provide quarterly reports on” the immigration status of people who have been convicted under the Federal Bureau of Prisons, people who are awaiting trial under the U.S. Marshals Service and people who are in state and local detention. The purpose behind collecting that data is “to promote the transparency and situational awareness of criminal aliens in the United States,” the order says.
“This has been a big part of the president’s political message,” Hudak said. “There is a policy argument to be made about more information about the size and location of criminals.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
But one immigration attorney finds Trump’s requests alarming.
“I don’t understand what the purpose of this executive order is supposed to be with regard to data collection,” said Jonathan Greene, founder of Columbia-based Greene Law Firm. “It’s difficult to assess what new relevant data is being requested and what the report is supposed to show.”
For starters, Greene said, the concept of asking for immigration status oversimplifies a complex issue. People can be permanent residents, have non-immigrant status if they’re in the U.S. on visitor, student or work visas. People might also have asylum status or have come to the U.S. as refugees.
“I’m not sure what particular aspect of this executive order pertains to the data collection of immigration status and how that ties into the situational awareness issue,” Greene said.
Greene also pointed out the inconsistency in the types of data requested at the federal, state and local levels. At the federal level, the order calls for data on people who have been convicted or are awaiting trial for criminal law enforcement, while the state and local reporting does not specify what sort of information the White House wants regarding detained individuals. It could be a person who was detained due to an immigration issue or a criminal charge of varying degrees.
“At best, this portion of the executive order is confusing and at worst, it creates a directive without any clear purpose,” Greene said. “What is relevant data? What does that mean and what are the reports for? This is perhaps an initial outline for an idea, it’s not well developed for an official order of the president of the United States.”
The Department of Justice already collects data about people in the federal prison system and the Department of Homeland Security collects data on people detained on immigration matters through Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“If the administration is not aware of who it has in jail, then there are a lot bigger problems than the intent of this executive order,” Greene said.
Similar questions arise from Trump’s executive order on border security and immigration enforcement.
The order asks for data to be gathered and submitted to the Department of State and then to the White House to look at level of aid the U.S. sends to Mexico.
“It seems unusual that the White House would need to request reports from different parts of the administration it oversees in executive orders when it could simply make the requests internally with those departments,” Greene said. “Unless the intent of executive orders is more political than substantive policy.”