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At Least 15 States Will Sue The Trump Administration For Putting A Citizenship Question On The 2020 Census

The states say asking residents if they are citizens is "illegal" and could hurt their representation in Congress and cut vital funds they receive from the government.

Last updated on March 27, 2018, at 10:51 p.m. ET

Posted on March 27, 2018, at 12:15 a.m. ET

A family celebrates US citizenship following a naturalization ceremony in New York.
John Moore / Getty Images

A family celebrates US citizenship following a naturalization ceremony in New York.

At least 15 states are banding together to sue the Trump administration to block the inclusion of a controversial question about citizenship status on the 2020 census, a query that has not appeared on the decennial survey since 1950.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Tuesday that his office was preparing a "multi-state lawsuit" to also challenge the citizenship question. By evening, at least 15 states had promised to join the effort, Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman with the attorney general's office, told BuzzFeed News.

Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington are some of the states backing New York's suit, according to the New York Times. California filed its own lawsuit Monday night.

“The census is supposed to count everyone,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “This is a blatant and illegal attempt by the Trump administration to undermine that goal, which will result in an undercount of the population and threaten federal funding for our state and cities.”

The move, announced in a letter from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, sparked an immediate backlash among Democrats and human rights groups who said it would reduce response rates and adversely affect states with large immigrant populations.

The decision to include a citizenship question came at the request of the Department of Justice, which in December said it needed the information to better enforce the Voting Rights Act and guard against racial discrimination in voting.

The Commerce Department ultimately agreed.

"Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the VRA," the department said Monday. Ross, it said, "determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts."

Democrats and civil rights groups blasted the decision, painting it as another tool the Trump administration could wield to intimidate and single out immigrant communities, as well as pull money and influence away from the states where those immigrants live.

"Adding a citizenship question may deter participation from immigrant households, that are largely in poor neighborhoods, thus stripping these communities of the scant funds they receive," said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, which works to register Latino voters.

"The president cannot demonize immigrants, threaten them with deportations and family separation, and then expect them to trust the government with sensitive information," he said. "This question is being added to ignore our presence, but you cannot ignore our contributions."

Xavier Becerra
Stephen Lam / Getty Images

Xavier Becerra

Late Monday night, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the administration, arguing that a citizenship question would violate the Constitution's requirement of an "actual Enumeration" of the entire US population.

The question would scare off noncitizens and their citizen relatives from responding, state officials said, leading to significant — and disproportionate, given California's sizable immigrant population — undercounting in the state.

California is also arguing that the decision to include the question in the 2020 census violates the Administrative Procedure Act — officials didn't follow internal agency policies and guidelines in deciding to include the question, Becerra's office contends, and undercounting would decrease the accuracy of census data, going against the administration's stated purpose for including the question in the first place.

The state filed suit in the US District Court for the Northern District of California. Becerra's office is asking the judge to issue an injunction blocking the administration from including a citizenship question in the 2020 census.

The government uses the decennial census to determine how billions of dollars in federal funds are allocated across the country. The money ultimately trickles down to support things like school districts, health care services, and transportation resources. Census numbers also impact how states are represented in Congress and the number of electoral votes each state receives in presidential contests.

In a state like Texas, asking residents whether they are US citizens could "torpedo an accurate count," the Texas Tribune reported, meaning "the state might lose its projected gain of three congressional seats" in the 2020 survey.

In a joint op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Becerra and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla called the addition of the question "an extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes."

"An undercount would threaten at least one of California’s seats in the House of Representatives (and, by extension, an elector in the electoral college)," they wrote.

Ross acknowledged in his memo Monday that the department will not be able to determine how much the citizenship question might impact "responsiveness" in the 2020 survey. But he said he concluded that the "value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns."

The White House has attempted to downplay the significance of including the question, as well as its possible ramifications. In a press conference on Tuesday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders brushed off concerns, falsely stating that the question "has been included in every census since 1965, with the exception of 2010 when it was removed."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says adding the question about citizenship in the 2020 Census is “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters” https://t.co/EAJCLAohYr https://t.co/0lkE9fC2kA

Sanders again inaccurately stated that the question has been a part of the US census for "decades," a claim that the Commerce Department's own press statement and memorandum debunks.

A US census has not asked a citizenship-related question since 1950. However, the American Community Survey has included one since 2005, Ross explained in his memo.

Prior decennial census surveys of the entire United States

population consistently asked citizenship questions up until 1950, and Census Bureau surveys of sample populations continue to ask citizenship questions to this day. In 2000, the decennial census "long form" survey, which was distributed to one in six people in the U.S., included a question on citizenship. Following the 2000 decennial census, the "long form" sample was replaced by the American Community Survey ("ACS"), which has included a citizenship question since 2005. Therefore, the citizenship question has been well tested.

It seems Sanders might have confused the survey with the official US census. BuzzFeed News has reached out to the White House for clarification.

Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who now chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, refuted those arguments, calling the inclusion of a citizenship question a "direct attack on representative democracy." He also said his organization would go to court to block the move.

"This question will lower the response rate and undermine the accuracy of the count, leading to devastating, decade-long impacts on voting rights and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding," Holder said in a statement Monday.

"Make no mistake," he added. "This decision is motivated purely by politics."


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