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Federal judge allows lawsuit against census citizenship question to go forward

Supporters of the lawsuit argue that the question will depress response rates in immigrant communities of color, impacting federal funding and the drawing of political districts.
by Jessica Spitz /
Image: An envelope containing a 2018 census test letter mailed to a resident in Providence, R.I.
The Trump administration included a question about citizenship in the next census. This is the first time such a question has been included since 1950.Michelle R. Smith / AP

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A lawsuit challenging a new citizenship question on the census was allowed to go forward by a federal judge on Tuesday.

In ruling on the legal action against the U.S. Commerce Department, a judge in New York City stated that there was strong evidence that a the citizenship question in the next census had been added in bad faith.

Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York ruled that the Trump administration will be required to provide more information as to how it came to the decision to add the question to the 2020 census.

The lawsuit was filed earlier this year by a coalition of 17 states, Washington, D.C., and six cities, led by New York, citing a concern that fewer immigrants will respond to the survey and therefore decrease the accuracy of the 2020 census, which determines funding allocation and how political districts are drawn.

“By demanding the citizenship status of each resident, the Trump administration is breaking with decades of policy and potentially causing a major undercount that would threaten billions in federal funds and New York’s fair representation in Congress and the Electoral College," New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a statement.

This lawsuit is one of several that have been filed this year regarding the citizenship question — California, the NAACP, and the ACLU have also filed separate lawsuits.

“The census is not simply yet another survey, the census is the basis for some of the most important decisions that we make in terms of the allocation of resources, the allocation of representation in government at every level,” Donna Lieberman, the Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News. “The principal of one person, one vote is at the core of our democracy, so to have a fair census is at the core of our democracy.”

The Trump administration has defended the question as a means to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But Perry Grossman, the Voting Rights Project Attorney at the NYCLU, argued that this is just a pretext.

“This is one more important weapon that [the Trump administration] has decided to try to pull out to hurt immigrant communities of color,” he said.

Grossman said that the next steps in the progression of the lawsuit will be to request more documents relating to the decision to include the question and to decide who within the Commerce and Justice Departments to depose.

The Commerce Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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