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Democrats vow to fight Trump administration over census citizenship question

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the addition of such a question a "direct attack on our representative democracy."
Image: New American citizens gather at a naturalization ceremony
New American citizens attend a naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles on March 20.Mario Tama / Getty Images

Hours after the Trump administration announced that the 2020 U.S. census would include a question about citizenship status, Democrats vowed to fight it in Congress and the courts, saying the query will scare away respondents who fear immigration enforcement and that it will yield more political power to the GOP.

"Let's call this like it is: The census, written about and hallowed in the Constitution, is being distorted by this administration for political purposes. President Trump and (Commerce) Secretary (Wilbur) Ross should be ashamed of themselves," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "Hopefully, the courts will correct this glaring abuse."

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the decision a "direct attack on our representative democracy," and vowed to sue. Meanwhile, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said Tuesday morning that he'd filed a lawsuit.

"California simply has too much to lose for us to allow (Trump's) Administration to botch this obligation!" Becerra tweeted.

The census is supposed to count all residents — both citizens and noncitizens, legal or otherwise, according to the Census Bureau. It is enshrined in the Constitution, with founding fathers calling for an "enumeration" every 10 years of its residents, including both citizens and slaves, "in such manner as they shall by law direct." The population counts from the census affect everything from federal funding to how many of the House of Representatives' 435 seats are allocated to each state.

A citizenship question has not been included in the typical short-form census received by most households since before 1950. The long-form version of the census, sent to just one in six households, did include a citizenship question. But by 2010, the census was short-form only, and the questions asked on the long-form census are now included in the annual American Community Survey. The ACS does ask about citizenship status, but its data isn't used to determine congressional seats.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, defending the move, said Tuesday that the question is "necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters." She also claimed that a citizenship question has been on every census since 1965, "with the exception of 2010, when it was removed." This is misleading, since just fraction of residents — 17 percent of residents in 2000, the last time a long-form census was used before being replaced by the ACS — would have seen such a question on a decennial census.

Undercounted immigrant communities could cause states with high immigrant populations to lose congressional seats and federal funding, potentially shifting political power toward more rural, historically conservative areas.

"Without an accurate census, our state will lose federal funding for infrastructure, schools and social welfare programs we are rightly owed. Even more troubling, an undercount of our population could lead to California losing seats in Congress, disenfranchising millions of California voters," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called a census citizenship question a violation of the "constitutional mandate to provide an accurate count of all people living in the United States."

"This detrimental change will inject fear and distrust into vulnerable communities, and cause traditionally undercounted communities to be even further under-represented, financially excluded and left behind," she added.

Ross, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, said the citizenship question was being reinstated at the Justice Department's request to help them enforce the section of the Voting Rights Act that bars discrimination against minority groups in redistricting.

"We've heard from people on all sides of the equation. We've done elaborate analyses within the census department, and we've concluded that the benefits to the Voting Rights Act enforcement of asking the question outweighs these other issues," he said on Fox Business.

Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Voting Rights Project, called the Trump administration's reasoning "ludicrous."

"We’ve never had that information and we’ve been able to enforce the VRA for 53 years or so," Ho told NBC News on Tuesday.

He added that the ACS asks about citizenship and gives the government statistical estimates on citizenship and immigration. Because that study relies on a sample size, Ho said, it can handle nonrespondents without compromising accuracy, whereas the census is designed to be a hard count of America's occupants and depends on the most comprehensive response possible.

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., who represents the heavily minority borough of Queens in New York City, called the decision "deeply troubling and reckless" and said she would look to introduce legislation to block the question from being included in the census.

"Many immigrants who are fearful of deportation under the current Administration will simply choose to not participate in the census out of fear that the information they provide will be used against them," she said in a statement.

Researchers testing census technology reported to the Census Bureau last year that respondents raised fears about who had access to citizenship information at higher rates, and some respondents falsified information on the people they lived with despite being paid volunteers who knew their interviewers.

“The Census Bureau itself has recognized that communities are fearful of government surveys in this current environment. For them to claim that adding this question will somehow give them better or more accurate data flies in the face of their own procedures," John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said.

Kevin Johnson, an immigration expert and the dean of University of California, Davis School of Law, said the question could affect responses from households with people of mixed status, as well as legal residents who fear the administration's harsh rhetoric on immigration.

"The citizenship question will likely 'chill' immigrants, legal as well as undocumented immigrants, to participate in the census," Johnson said.

"Things are tense and politically fractious and people, immigrants in particular, but people who are relatives of immigrants, are frightened in a way that people haven’t seen in the United States in a generation or more," he added.

Michael Li, an expert in redistricting at the Brennan Center for Justice, said undercounting immigrants will have consequences nationwide, costing seats in states with growing immigrant populations like Texas, California, and Florida while keeping seats in other states static.

"It might keep seats in the Midwest in particular, the Midwest has not been growing as fast and it’s been slated to lose seats in places like Ohio, Michigan. It’s possible they could keep them if places like Texas don’t gain them," Li said.

Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said in a joint statement that they had previously encouraged the Commerce Department to add such a question, and they applauded the decision.

"Accurate census data that reflects the total number of U.S. citizens is a vital part of our democracy," the Oklahoma Republican said. "Without it, we can’t responsibly ensure equal representation for states in the House of Representatives or assess voter participation. I applaud the Census Bureau for adding this common-sense question."