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Texas community union takes on Trump on census citizenship question

“I know the citizenship question could harm many states, but we will really feel it in South Texas,” said LUPE's Juanita Valdez-Cox.
Image: United States census
The 2020 Census Operational Plan compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, part of the Department of Commerce.Jon Elswick / AP

For Juanita Valdez-Cox, asking all 2020 census respondents whether they are U.S. citizens would mean less food on families' tables and more people unable to pay their rent.

Valdez-Cox is executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, a community union in Texas' Rio Grande Valley that is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the citizenship question.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday in a Maryland courtroom in LUPE v. Ross, one of three challenges to the Trump administration's plan to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census. The Ross is Wilbur Ross, secretary of the Commerce Department, which administers the census.

The lawsuit, filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, claims that administration officials and others conspired to deny minority voters their equal rights. The trial, held in Maryland because one of the plaintiffs is the Maryland Latino Legislative Caucus, and the Census Bureau and at least one defendant reside in the state, began Jan. 22.

“I know the citizenship question could harm many states, but we will really feel it in South Texas,” Valdez-Cox told NBC News in a phone interview last week.

LUPE was founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1989, in the belief that members of low-income communities have the responsibility and the obligation to organize themselves.

In the Rio Grande Valley, where nearly 90 percent of the population is Mexican-American and Mexican, Valdez-Cox said a census undercount could result in less money for housing assistance and programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, which many in the valley rely on.

For the trial, the case was consolidated with Kravitz v. U.S. Department of Commerce, another lawsuit over the citizenship question.

Along with legal challenges in California and New York, the outcome of the Maryland trial could have major implications for Latino communities around the country.

Census data is used to allocate congressional seats and apportion federal tax revenue for a wide range of federal programs. Some households include family members who lack legal documentation, and mixed-status families have expressed fear that answering census forms could lead to their confidential information being shared with immigration authorities.

But Valdez-Cox said no matter how the citizenship question issue is resolved, the harm has already been done.

“Some people from mixed-status families or undocumented families do not trust this administration," said Valdez-Cox, who testified for the plaintiffs in the Maryland trial. "Either way, we are going to have a lot of work to do, to encourage people to participate.”

The Trump administration has said that the citizenship question is needed to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and cut down on voter fraud.

Against the recommendation of the Census Bureau, Ross announced the addition of the citizenship question in March 2018.

Denise M. Hulett, national senior counsel for MALDEF, said the plaintiffs had presented evidence "that, we think, shows the citizenship question was added for an improper and discriminatory purpose."

Her team introduced tweets from President Donald Trump, official White House statements, and comments such as his remarks about “s---hole countries” in support of the contention that the Trump administration was motivated to by racial bias in adding the citizenship question.

Hulett pointed to results from a Census Bureau focus group study that came out during the trial that showed that the question could potentially be a high barrier to participation among Latinos.

“It is quite amazing, the large number of people who don’t trust that the Census Bureau will keep their information confidential," she said. "This bolsters our case because the potential negative impact is very real.”

At trial, the Trump administration tried to show that adding the citizenship question would not harm the 2020 count.

While a spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment on LUPE v. Ross, the spokesperson provided a statement to NBC News on Feb. 11.

"Secretary Ross, the only person with legal authority over the census, reasonably decided to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 census in response to the Department of Justice's request for better citizenship data, to protect voters against racial discrimination. Our government is legally entitled to include a citizenship question on the census and people in the United States have a legal obligation to answer," the Justice Department said. "Reinstating the citizenship question ultimately protects the right to vote and helps ensure free and fair elections for all Americans."

On Jan. 15, a federal judge in the New York case ruled against the Trump administration, blocking the plan to include the citizenship question on the 2020 census. Hoping to bypass the appellate court level, the administration asked the Supreme Court on Jan. 22 to review the issue.

On Friday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in that case in April and to decide by June.

Hulett told NBC News in an email that the Supreme Court decision should not affect the Maryland lawsuit because "we have additional claims involving intentional discrimination.

In LUPE v. Ross, MALDEF alleges violation of the enumerations, equal protection and apportionment clauses of the Constitution; violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, which regulates the federal decision-making process; and conspiracy to violate the Civil Rights Act.

Last year, Ross told Congress that the citizenship question originated with a December 2017 request from the Department of Justice. He later backtracked, writing in a memo that he initiated the request. Government records indicate that Ross also consulted with former White House adviser Steve Bannon and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on the question.

Douglas S. Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, said last week that the citizenship question will undermine the ability of the bureau to get an accurate count.

“The question serves no conceivable purpose provided under federal, state, or local law. It will lead to underenumeration, increased costs and an undermining of public confidence," Massey said.

Massey, who testified as an expert witness in the Maryland trial for MALDEF, explained that the addition of a citizenship question was a particularly bad idea because this census will be the first to be conducted largely online. Putting in a contentious question could add more risk and uncertainty to an already challenging task.

“Any controversies around the census take away from its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens and people who should be responding to it,” said Massey, a former member of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee. He called the proposed citizenship question “the most blatant political intervention in the census in decades.”

Ross is scheduled to testify on March 14 before a House Oversight Committee, where one of the topics is expected to be the 2020 census.

Valdez-Cox is hopeful about the outcome of the Maryland federal trial and that her community will prevail.

“In this area, there is a lot of strength, because of the Trump administration’s attacks. In the face of bad policies, our community will not be silent. The meaner they are, the stronger we get," she said.

“And the more they want to make us invisible,” she added, “the more persistent our spirit becomes.”