WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is still considering how to proceed in its effort to add a contentious citizenship question to the 2020 census, according to court papers filed on Friday.
President Donald Trump earlier said he may issue an executive order. The U.S. Constitution specifically assigns the job of overseeing the census to Congress, limiting the authority of the president over it, which could complicate an effort to add the question via presidential missive.
“We’re working on a lot of things including an executive order,” Trump told reporters outside the White House as he left for his resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.
In a court filing in response to a Maryland-based federal judge’s deadline, the Department of Justice indicated it has not yet come up with a new legal rationale for adding the question after being blocked in the Supreme Court on June 27.
U.S. District Judge George Hazel said on Wednesday that if the administration did not reach a decision he would press ahead with considering allegations based on newly discovered evidence that the decision to add the question was motivated by racial bias.
The Justice Department said in its court filing it objects to the case moving forward.
Critics have called the citizenship question a Republican ploy to scare immigrants into not participating and engineer a population undercount in Democratic-leaning areas with high immigrant populations. They say that officials lied about their motivations for adding the question and that the move would help Trump’s fellow Republicans gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures when new electoral district boundaries are drawn.
Trump on Friday said the “number one” reason for adding the question was for the drawing of electoral districts, which is not the legal reason the administration gave for adding it.
He and his supporters say it makes sense to know how many non-citizens are living in the country. His hard-line policies on immigration have punctuated his presidency and 2020 re-election campaign.
“We’re spending 15 to 20 billion dollars on a census we’re doing everything, we’re finding out everything about everybody. Think about it, 15 to 20 billion dollars and you’re not allowed to ask them ‘are you a citizen?’” Trump said.
Trump administration officials have been scrambling in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling on June 27 that blocked the inclusion of the question, saying administration officials had given a “contrived” rationale for including it. The court ruled that in theory the government can ask about citizenship on the census and left open the possibility that the administration could offer a plausible rationale to add the question.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Tuesday said the Census Bureau had started the process of printing the questionnaires without the citizenship query, giving the impression that the administration had backed down.
But Trump then ordered a policy reversal via tweet on Wednesday, saying he would fight on, although the government has said the printing process continues.
The census is used to allot seats in the House and distribute some $800 billion in federal services, including public schools, Medicaid benefits, law enforcement and highway repairs.
A group of states including New York and immigrant rights organizations challenged the legality of the citizenship question, arguing among other things that the U.S. Constitution requires congressional districts to be distributed based on a count of “the whole number of persons in each state” with no reference to citizenship. Three different federal judges blocked the administration before the Supreme Court intervened.
The administration had originally told the courts the question was needed to better enforce a law that protects the voting rights of racial minorities.
Administration officials had repeatedly told the Supreme Court they needed to finalize the details of the census questionnaire by the end of June.
Even if a citizenship question is not included, the Census Bureau is still able to gather data on citizenship, which the Trump administration could provide to states when they are drawing new electoral districts.