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Trump Backs Off Census Citizenship Question Fight

Jul 11, 2019
Originally published on July 12, 2019 3:28 am

Updated at 6:55 p.m. ET

President Trump announced Thursday he would sign an executive order to obtain data about the U.S. citizenship and noncitizenship status of everyone living in the United States.

In a Rose Garden ceremony, Trump said he would drop efforts to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Instead, his executive order will direct all U.S. agencies to provide the Department of Commerce all information they have on U.S. citizenship, noncitizenship and immigration status.

"We have great knowledge in many of our agencies," Trump said, flanked by Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. "We will leave no stone unturned."

The executive order marks the administration's latest effort to obtain the information despite a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that bars the administration from including the question on the 2020 census for now.

In backing down from the legal fight, Trump appears to be doing what the Census Bureau encouraged over a year ago.

Before Ross decided to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, the Census Bureau's acting director, Ron Jarmin, and other officials had tried to convince him to use existing government records about U.S. citizens and noncitizens.

Some of the steps Trump outlined are already underway. The Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, at Ross's direction, had already entered into agreements with the Census Bureau to provide the bureau with information on noncitizens.

Barr said the government had "ample justification" to inquire about citizenship status on the census. It just didn't have enough time.

He said any effort would be immediately challenged in the courts. He said there was no time to fight the matter in court without jeopardizing the U.S. government's ability to carry out the census itself.

"Put simply, the impediment was logistical, not legal," he said.

The question the administration had wanted to include was, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

Justice Department and Commerce Department officials have said that printing has started for paper forms that do not include the question.

Last month, the Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question from the census for now. A majority of the justices rejected the administration's original stated justification — to better protect the voting rights of racial minorities — for appearing "contrived." Ross formally approved adding the question last year after pressuring Commerce officials for months to find a way to include it.

The court's decision did leave open the possibility for the administration to make another case for the question.

Census Bureau research suggests including the question would have been highly likely to discourage an estimated 9 million people from taking part in the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the United States. Critics of the question worry that would have led to undercounts of immigrant groups and communities of color, especially among Latinx people.

That could have had long-term impacts on how political representation and federal funding are shared in the U.S. through 2030. Census results determine each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes for the next decade. They also guide how an estimated $880 billion a year in federal tax dollars is distributed for schools, roads and other public services in local communities.

With just over six months left until the official census kickoff in rural Alaska, any changes to census forms could have jeopardized the final preparations for the count. Census Bureau officials have testified that the deadline for finalizing the questionnaire could be pushed back to Oct. 31, but only "with exceptional effort and additional resources."

Before Thursday's announcement that the administration was shifting away from the census push, Trump had been vocal in not wanting to back down.

This week, Trump's reelection campaign sent emails to ask supporters to complete an online survey that asked whether they believed the 2020 census should ask people if they are "American citizens."

"We can't Keep America Great for all Americans if we don't know who's in this country," said the email, signed by "Team Trump 2020."

Earlier Thursday, the House was planning a vote on July 16 to hold Barr and Ross in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas related to the oversight committee's investigation regarding the citizenship question.

"For months, Attorney General Barr and Secretary Ross have withheld key documents subpoenaed by the Committee on a bipartisan basis without asserting any valid legal justification for their refusal. These documents could shed light on the real reason that the Trump Administration tried to add the citizenship question," oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said in a statement on Thursday.

He urged Barr and Ross to comply with the subpoenas so Congress can avoid a contempt vote.

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President Trump is backing down on his effort to get a controversial citizenship question added to the 2020 census. His administration has been fighting in court for more than a year to get the question on. Trump also issued an executive order that he says will improve sharing of citizenship data between agencies.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens in our country. They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately.

CORNISH: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census. He's been following this effort from the beginning. And, Hansi, give us more detail on the president's announcement tonight.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, he's essentially dropping this fight to get this question - the citizenship question onto the 2020 census, saying that it would have delayed the census. And because of essentially logistical hurdles - this is also U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaking - that that's why they're no longer trying to push this through the courts. But he is going to issue this executive order, which - I've been covering this for more than a year now.

I don't hear anything new in this executive order because if you actually were to go back into Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's decision to add this question, he also instructed the Commerce Department - the Census Bureau, rather, to compile existing government records from the Social Security Administration, from State Department, from Department of Homeland Security. And these are records the Census Bureau says would be more accurate and less expensive to collect than self-reported responses to a citizenship question.

And the Census Bureau officials, they actually said back in May, just a few months ago, that they've already compiled those records and were waiting for the commerce secretary to give them the go-ahead to release them eventually. So this sounds like the president is backing down and trying to do it in a way that seems like he's not going down in the fight.

CORNISH: Right. Essentially, I mean, you're seeing agencies already share data about citizenship?

WANG: I'm saying that there are special agreements that the Census Bureau has already entered into to get those - get this data from the Social Security Administration and from the Department of Homeland Security. That's already happened. This isn't new. And all the Census Bureau is waiting for - has been waiting for is guidance from the commerce secretary of what to do with this data that he directed them to compile.

CORNISH: President Trump and the Department of Justice have been saying that they would keep trying to get the question on. Is there a sense of what changed here in terms of the legal approach?

WANG: Well, we have to remember that the Supreme Court ruled that the initial stated reason that the administration gave for this question, they found that it appeared to have been contrived, that it was supposedly - it was to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. A majority of the justices did not buy that explanation and said that technically the Trump administration could go back to court and try to make another case for this question by giving another reason.

But there are major logistical hurdles. Just last week, the Justice Department and Commerce Department officials confirmed that the printing has already started for paper forms for the census without the citizenship question. There are 1.5 billion pieces of paper including these forms that need to get printed. And time is running out. The 2020 census is set to officially start in January. Any changes at this point to the census questionnaire could derail this constitutionally mandated headcount.

CORNISH: And what happens next?

WANG: It's a really big question, I guess. I think the biggest question here is with all this controversy and all this attention on the citizenship question that ultimately will not appear on these forms, how will this impact how households with non-citizens, immigrant communities, communities of color who have heightened fears about the census in general, how will they process all this? And will the Census Bureau, as well as other community groups, will they be able to get full participation from the public with this administration which has brought so much controversy around the census?

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks for your reporting.

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