Trump Administration To Print 2020 Census Without Citizenship Question

Jul 2, 2019
Originally published on July 2, 2019 10:45 pm

Updated at 10:45 p.m. ET

The Trump administration has decided to print the 2020 census forms without a citizenship question, and the printer has been told to start the printing process, Justice Department spokesperson Kelly Laco confirms to NPR.

The move comes shortly after the Supreme Court ruled to keep the question off census forms for now and just a day after printing was scheduled to begin for 1.5 billion paper forms, letters and other mailings.

In recent days, President Trump had said he wanted to delay the constitutionally mandated head count to give the Supreme Court a chance to issue a more "decisive" ruling on whether the administration could add the question, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" A majority of the justices found that the administration's use of the Voting Rights Act to justify the question "seems to have been contrived."

Trump said in a tweet Tuesday night, "A very sad time for America when the Supreme Court of the United States won't allow a question of 'Is this person a Citizen of the United States?' " He added that he has asked the Departments of Justice and Commerce "to do whatever is necessary to bring this most vital of questions, and this very important case, to a successful conclusion. USA! USA! USA!"

Asked whether the administration's decision to not add the question is final, Laco said in a text: "Confirm no citizenship question on 2020 census."

A federal judge has ordered Justice Department attorneys and Maryland-based plaintiffs in the citizenship question lawsuits to reach a written agreement by July 8 that formally confirms those plans, according to plaintiffs' attorney Thomas Saenz of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Still, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau and approved adding the question, said in a statement that the bureau has started the process of printing census forms without the question. He added that while he respects the Supreme Court, he "strongly" disagrees with its ruling on the question.

"My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate census," Ross said.

More than two dozen states, cities and other groups challenged in court Ross' decision to add the question. Critics worry that including the question would suppress participation in the census, especially among households with noncitizens and among communities of color. The bureau's own research in 2018 found the question to be a "major barrier" to participation in the head count of every person living in the United States.

Letters with instructions for completing test census forms that include the citizenship question have already been sent to about a quarter-million U.S. households. The bureau has said it plans to continue conducting the experiment through mid-August to gauge public reaction.

The Trump administration's announcement on Tuesday did not address what it plans to do with existing government records on citizenship that Ross instructed the Census Bureau last year to start compiling in addition to adding a citizenship question. The bureau has entered into special agreements to obtain those records from the Social Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

Researchers at the bureau have recommended using those records as a more accurate and less expensive source of citizenship information about every U.S. household than self-reported responses to a question on census forms. In May, the bureau's chief scientist, John Abowd, said that while the bureau has been waiting for "guidance" from Ross, it has been preparing to put out citizenship information based on the records.

If that information is released after the 2020 census is conducted, state and local redistricting officials could use the data to draw new voting districts based on only the number of U.S. citizens old enough to vote, rather than the number of all residents. According to documents that plaintiffs allege show the real reason for the Trump administration's push for a citizenship question, the now-deceased Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller concluded that using this type of citizenship data for redistricting would ultimately be "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."

While the legal fight over the question may be winding down, a federal judge in New York is continuing to prepare to review allegations of a Trump administration cover-up involving the citizenship question.

In Congress, lawmakers on the House Oversight and Reform Committee are keeping the heat on the administration as part of an investigation into why the administration wanted the question.

"The Trump Administration put our country through more than a year of wasted time and squandered resources—all in the service of an illegal attempt to add a discriminatory question based on a pretext," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who chairs the committee, in a statement released Tuesday. "Now they need to direct all their attention to the nuts and bolts of putting on the Census next year."

Cummings' statement then turned back to his committee's investigation, noting that Ross and Attorney General William Barr "must now turn over" complete versions of all the internal documents about the question that lawmakers have requested.

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A long fight over the census has apparently come to an end. The Trump administration has decided to print forms for the 2020 census without a question asking whether respondents are citizens. This comes after more than a year of legal battles. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled to temporarily keep the question off census forms, but the court had left open the possibility that the administration could make its case for the question once more. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census-related. And he joins me from New York.

Hey, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this means the Trump administration is no longer going to try to get a citizenship question - any kind of citizenship question on the census.

WANG: It looks like it. I tried to get final confirmation from a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, which is representing the administration. The spokesperson texted back - confirm; no citizenship question on the 2020 census. And I just have a statement here from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau. And he says, I quote, "my focus and that of the bureau and the entire department is to conduct a complete and accurate census." Although, he says that he strongly disagrees with the Supreme Court ruling regarding blocking the citizenship question from being added.

And to remind everyone, this is a question that asks, is this person a citizen of the United States? The deadline to start printing was yesterday, so this is a very last-minute decision here. And just for context, just yesterday, President Trump said this was a very important question to be added to census forms.

KELLY: And just for a little more context, remind us why this particular question was so controversial.

WANG: Well, this is a kind of question that the Census Bureau has long known to be a very sensitive question - a question that is likely to discourage some non-citizens and some citizens from participating in the census. And that is a big deal because the Constitution requires a head count of every person living in the country, regardless of citizenship status, regardless of immigration status. So this is a question that researchers have found that would undermine those efforts to do an accurate count of every person living in the country.

This is also a question that Census Bureau researchers have found would not produce the most accurate information about citizenship; that if the Trump administration wanted to know exactly how many U.S. citizens there are living in the U.S., adding this question was not the way to do it. And instead, it's compiling existing government records from various federal agencies. And the bureau has done just that. And that's a question I have now. What exactly will the Trump administration do with those existing government records about citizenship?

KELLY: Right - an important reminder that if the Trump administration still wants to learn the answer to this question, there are other ways to collect that information. I - now that this question is not going to be on the census, what - where does that leave the census? What does it mean going forward?

WANG: Well, I imagine there's a big sigh of relief at the Census Bureau because there were a lot of looming questions these past 24, 48 hours, where it was very unclear whether or not the forms would include a citizenship question - something that essentially - Census Bureau researchers have essentially described it - you know, this would be throwing a bomb in the room. This is a longtime, big government program that had - years had been spent to prepare for this, and this would have derailed preparations possibly. You know, President Trump was saying that he wanted to delay the census in order to get this question on this form.

KELLY: And I'm curious. Given how controversial this has been, how much coverage there has been - we don't usually have a full-time census correspondent, (laughter) but that's, more or less, what you've been these last few months. How might this affect whether people respond to the census? - you know, people deciding to participate.

WANG: You know, there's a lot of concern amongst advocacy groups that this - all this focus on the citizenship question has essentially maybe tainted the well; that there's a close association between the census and a citizenship question. And the concern is that many immigrant groups and communities of color may not participate. And that may lead to an undercount in 2020.

KELLY: The concern that they are spooked no matter how this has ultimately shake out - NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, reporting there from New York.

Thank you very much.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.