WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday said his administration had not dropped its efforts to add a contentious citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census, contradicting statements made by his own officials including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
The U.S. Supreme Court last Thursday blocked Trump’s plan to add the citizenship question, saying administration officials had given a “contrived” rationale.
Administration officials including Ross said on Tuesday that the census forms were being printed without the citizenship question.
Critics have called the citizenship question a Republican ploy to scare immigrants into not taking part in the decennial population count and engineer an undercount in Democratic-leaning areas with high immigrant and Latino populations. That would benefit non-Hispanic whites and help Trump’s fellow Republicans gain seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures when new electoral district boundaries are drawn after the census, the critics said.
“The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
White House and Commerce Department officials had no immediate comment on Trump’s tweet.
“There’s nothing fake about the Department of Justice writing us saying printing is starting without the citizenship question,” the American Civil Liberties Union, which had challenged the citizenship question in court, wrote on Twitter.
Democratic U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney told Reuters that the Justice Department and Commerce secretary both confirmed to her office “that the printing process will move forward without the citizenship question.”
Trump’s hardline policies on immigration have been a key element of his presidency and 2020 re-election campaign.
Trump last Thursday also said he is exploring whether the census, which the U.S. Constitution requires be carried out every 10 years, can be delayed.
But Ross, a key figure in the controversy, said in a statement on Tuesday, “The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question.”
MARYLAND COURT CASE
The Justice Department told a judge in Maryland presiding over an ongoing court battle over the citizenship question that the administration had made a final decision not to proceed, according to two lawyers involved in the litigation.
In the wake of Trump’s Twitter post, U.S. District Judge George Hazel set up a telephone call with lawyers involved in the case for Wednesday afternoon.
“The judge has, on his own, scheduled this hearing. We received no indication as to the reason,” said Denise Hulett, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights group challenging the citizenship question.
Trump’s administration had told the courts that its rationale for adding the question was to better enforce a law that protects the voting rights of racial minorities. Critics called that rationale a pretext for partisan motives.
Although the Supreme Court left open the possibility of the administration adding the question in the future, there was little time left for officials to come up with a new rationale. The administration had said in court filings that it needed to finalize the details of the questionnaire by the end of June.
The census is used to allot seats in the U.S. House and distribute some $800 billion in federal funds. Opponents have said the citizenship question would instill fear in immigrant households that the information would be shared with law enforcement, deterring them from taking part.
Even if the citizenship question is not on the questionnaire, the Census Bureau is still able to gather some citizenship data using its annual American Community Survey. Census Bureau officials have discussed the possibility of including citizenship data in the data the agency provides to states to guide the drawing of new electoral districts.
Citizenship status has not been asked of all households since the 1950 census. Since then, it was included only on questionnaires sent to a smaller subset of the population.
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A group of states including New York and immigrant rights organizations challenged the legality of the administration’s plan.
Manhattan-based U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on Jan. 15 that the Commerce Department’s decision to add the question violated a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act. Federal judges in Maryland and California also have issued rulings to block the question.
Furman said the evidence showed that Ross had concealed his true motives for adding the citizenship question and that he and his aides had convinced the Justice Department to formally request its addition to the census.