Washington: President Trump announced Thursday he would sign an executive order to obtain data about the U.S. citizenship and non-citizenship 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, non-citizenship 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.
It’s not clear what impact the executive order will have. Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, has already directed the bureau to enter into special agreements with the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security to compile existing government records on citizenship.
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 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.
The Census Bureau has continued to recommend against adding the question, which researchers say would produce self-reported responses that are less accurate and more costly to gather compared with existing government records on citizenship. Ross has authorized the bureau to compile those records, and bureau officials have said they are waiting for “guidance” on whether to release that information, which would be anonymized to not identify individuals.
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.”
“I have no intention of allowing this flagrant waste of money,” Rep. José Serrano of New York, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau, said in a written statement released Tuesday. “I once again urge the Trump Administration to give up this fight and allow for a depoliticized and accurate census, as we always have.”
Still, Trump has been vocal in not wanting to back down. His tweets after Justice and Commerce officials announced that printing had started without a citizenship question signaled a marked turn toward a prolonged legal battle.
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.”
Attorneys defending the administration, however, could be coming from a new team of Justice Department lawyers. This week, in an unusual move, the administration tried to get judges to approve a complete turnover of every single career DOJ attorney who has been working on the ongoing lawsuits for months. The Justice Department has not provided an explanation for why it wants the change. So far, two federal judges have rejected those requests while allowing the administration to try again to swap out the attorneys.
The House is also scheduling 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.
What is the citizenship question?
“Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
This question has not appeared on a US census for all Americans since 1950, though it has been asked to some subsets of the population between 1970 and 2000.
The population count helps the government draw up districts for state and local elections, and determine how much federal funding each state receives – a matter of hundreds of billions of dollars.
In a 2018 report, Census Bureau researchers found that the inclusion of a citizenship question will likely suppress response rates in households with immigrants and minority groups, leading to a “lower-quality population count”.
But Mr Ross – the billionaire financier who oversees the Census Bureau – insisted that detailed citizenship data is of “greater importance than any adverse effect” posed by an undercount.
Why was citizenship question so controversial?
The heated legal battle over whether to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census has hinged on the motives underlying it.
The White House argued that the decision was made for practical reasons. “When you have a census and you’re not allowed to talk about whether or not somebody’s a citizen or not, that doesn’t sound so good to me,” Mr Trump said to reporters last month.
But critics argue efforts to include the question were politically motivated and say it would have suppressed responses from immigrants and racial minorities.
This would almost certainly benefit the Republican Party when it comes to the drawing-up of districts for elections and calculating how much funding each state receives.
The states with the highest immigration populations, such as California and New Mexico, would have been at the greatest risk of an undercount. Many of these states tend to vote Democrat.
Depressed response rates in these states would allow for electorate boundaries to be redrawn, pulling political power – and funding – away from Democratic-leaning, minority households.
Last week, the Supreme Court wrote in a 5-4 ruling that the Trump administration had not provided adequate justification for the inclusion of the question.
Three federal judges had earlier issued rulings to block the question, one calling it a threat “to the very foundation” of US democracy.
Image: President Trump, flanked by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (left) and Attorney General William Barr, delivers remarks on citizenship and the census in the Rose Garden at the White House on Thursday.