Trump abandons census citizenship question, but demands agencies’ data on immigrants

President Donald Trump announced Thursday that his administration would no longer seek to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, ending his campaign to ask respondents about their immigration status.

The move follows weeks of scrambling by the Trump administration to salvage the question after the Supreme Court last month ordered the federal government to exclude a citizenship question from the upcoming census.

“(Pursuing it) would have produced even more litigation and considerable delays,” Trump said in an announcement in the Rose Garden. “These delays would have kept us from completing the census on time.”

Instead, Trump said the administration would try to answer the question of how many non-citizens are in the U.S. by demanding that all federal agencies immediately turn over all their data to the Department of Commerce.

It was a path career officials at the Census Bureau recommended in a January 2018 memo. The Census Bureau said it could collect citizenship records from the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the State Department and US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The administration, led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, had argued that a citizenship question was needed on the once-a-decade population count to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that that rationale appeared to be “contrived,” and sent the case back to a federal court in New York for further consideration. A U.S. District Court in Northern California also ruled against the addition of the citizenship question in March.

“We cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, which included the court’s four liberal justices. As a result, the court found that the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, violated laws governing federal agencies.

Roberts’ opinion recognized, however, that the Constitution permits the federal government “to inquire about citizenship on the census questionnaire.” And he wrote that there could be “reasonable” arguments for including a citizenship question, despite a potentially lower response rate from immigrant families.

There’s a “long history of the citizenship question on the census,” the opinion noted, although it acknowledged that it has not been asked of all households since 1950.

The Trump administration had been trying to find a new rationale to keep the question on the census that Chief Justice John Roberts would allow, including switching to an entirely new legal team within the Department of Justice.

The Justice Department had announced earlier this month that the federal government had started printing the census questionnaire without the citizenship question.

Trump contradicted that report after his attorneys announced the printing. He backed down on Thursday.

“That President Trump conceded there will not be a citizenship question on the 2020 census is a victory for all Americans, no matter how he tries to frame it,” said California Attorney General Xavier Beccera. “It is time for the Trump administration to move on.”

Senate Republicans signaled Thursday that they still believe the citizenship question should be included on the census.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, said he had no problem even if Trump were circumventing the Supreme Court, because he believed the question belonged on the census.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, who is currently undergoing a primary challenge, said he would’ve supported Trump moving forward on the question as long as Attorney General Bill Barr felt it was constitutional.

“The attorney general has suggested that the manner that he’s using is appropriate and would withstand judicial scrutiny,” Tillis said.

The Constitution requires the U.S. government to count every person living in the United States every ten years.

Critics feared that in the current climate of immigration raids and deportations, even legal immigrants will be afraid to participate in the census, particularly if it had asked about citizenship. That would hurt California and other states with large populations of Latinos and immigrants.

“This is a victory for democracy in our country but we know the Trump administration will continue trying to silence communities of color,” tweeted Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, who is running for president. “People across the country remain fearful of participating in the Census and we must continue fighting to ensure everyone is counted and heard.”

Many federal funding programs for states and local governments are calculated using data from decennial census.

The country’s 435 congressional seats are also apportioned based on the data.

An Urban Institute report released at the beginning of June found California faced the greatest risk of an undercount of any state, given its populations. In the report’s “low risk” scenario, roughly 229,000 people would not be counted. In the “high risk” scenario, that figure would rise to 577,000 people.

Even in a low-risk scenario, California’s population growth rate — the lowest in history — means the state would have been likely to lose a congressional seat, demographers say.

Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.