/Trump to Take Executive Action on Census Citizenship Question

Trump to Take Executive Action on Census Citizenship Question

Donald Trump
capitulated on his effort to add a question about citizenship to the decennial census on Thursday following defeat at the Supreme Court, instead announcing a face-saving plan to use government data to estimate the number of non-citizens in the country.

His alternative method of tallying immigrants in the U.S., however, appeared no different than an approach Census Bureau officials had themselves recommended.

The president’s announcement in the White House Rose Garden — where he was accompanied by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr and took no questions from reporters — marked a rare retreat.

President Trump Delivers Remarks On Citizenship And The Census

Donald Trump speaks as Wilbur Ross and William Barr listen in the Rose Garden on July 11.

Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

Trump’s administration has been fighting for more than a year to add the citizenship question to the census, taking the matter all the way to the high court. While the census has asked about citizenship in the past, the legal battle came to represent — both for Trump and his political opponents — the front lines of a larger ideological dispute over his crackdown on immigration and even his attitudes toward race and nationalism.

“We will defend the right of the American people to know the full facts of the population, size of citizens, and non-citizens in America,” Trump said in his statement. “We must have a reliable count of how many citizens, non-citizens and illegal aliens are in our country.”


Adding the question to the census was “delayed by meritless litigation,” he said, accusing Democrats of attempting to “conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst.”

The idea of using government data to assemble an estimate of the country’s non-citizen residents isn’t new: Top Census Bureau officials told Ross in 2017 and 2018 that they could apply statistical modeling techniques to existing government data.

The bureau said that approach would produce a more accurate measure of citizenship than a census question. The officials said the citizenship question would reduce participation by millions of people, undercutting the usefulness of census data.

But Ross rejected the approach in March 2018 in favor of trying to add the census question, though he said the count would be supplemented by the data technique.

Trump on Thursday said the Census Bureau could use existing government records to determine citizenship for at least 90 percent of the population. He mentioned the Homeland Security Department and Social Security Administration, two agencies whose data the Census Bureau had already said it planned to use.

“Ultimately this will allow us to have an even more complete count of citizens then through asking the single question alone,” Trump said. “It will be come out we think, far more accurate.”

It’s not clear if Trump’s order on Thursday goes any further than the Census Bureau’s own recommendation.

Cities, counties, states and immigrant-rights groups have challenged the Trump administration’s effort, fearing that a question on citizenship in a census administered by his government could scare off immigrants and non-citizens from responding.

That would dilute the political power of areas home to many such people, as the results of the once-a-decade questionnaire are used to re-draw congressional districts and allocate billions of dollars in federal spending.

The president’s political opponents say that’s the point, accusing the president of trying to use the census to bolster the political power of white voters and the Republican Party. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday that Trump sought to “make America white again.”

‘Humiliating Defeat’

“Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration,” Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “When the details of Trump’s new plan to compile citizenship data outside of the census come out — and his plans for using that data — we will scrutinize them closely and assess their legality.”

Ross had argued that the aim of the census question was to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters. But in the final opinion of its term, a divided Supreme Court said June 27 that Ross’s rationale was “contrived” and couldn’t be squared with evidence about his true motivations. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court’s liberals in the majority.

The administration initially appeared to accept the Supreme Court decision and said it was starting to print census forms that did not include the question. But Trump subsequently ordered the government to re-examine the issue in a tweet, prompting the Justice Department to explore alternatives.

Barr said Thursday that it would be impossible to complete litigation over the citizenship question in time to conduct the census. The administration had told the Supreme Court the census questionaire needed to be finalized by June 30. He said the court challenges posed “logistical” issues but that including the question would have been legal.

“There is no question that a decision to add the question would ultimately survive legal review,” Barr said.

He said citizenship data could be useful for “apportionment purposes,” the process by which seats in the U.S. House are distributed among the states.

“We will be studying this issue,” he said.

Surprise Announcement

Trump announced Thursday’s Rose Garden statement — which didn’t appear on his official schedule for Thursday — in a tweet previewing a social media summit at the White House.

Before his retreat, the president “was pushing everyone in the White House and the Department of Justice to find all the various ways” to move ahead with plans to ask people their citizenship status as part of the census, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli said Wednesday.

Census-takers started asking about citizenship in 1820 but haven’t posed the question to every household since 1950.

QuickTake: Are You a Citizen? The Trump Census Question on Trial

last week that he might issue an executive order to add the question, telling reporters that there are “a number of different avenues.”

But it soon became clear that the legal path toward adding the question to the census was effectively closed. A federal judge on Monday
a request by the Trump administration to assign a new legal team to a lawsuit that blocked the U.S. from adding the proposed citizenship question.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan called the government’s request “patently deficient,” adding that the U.S. had provided “no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel.” He said the government has to show that replacing the team won’t further delay the suit.

— With assistance by Terrence Dopp

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