The Trump administration is ending its quest to include a hotly contested citizenship question on the 2020 census despite apparent popular support for the move, President Donald Trump announced in a Rose Garden press conference Thursday evening.
Instead, Trump told reporters, he would seek to ascertain citizenship data by issuing an executive order to require all federal agencies to supply the Commerce Department with “all legally accessible records” in their possession that could be used to determine residents’ citizenship status.
“We are pursuing a new option to ensure a complete and timely count of the non-citizen population,” Trump said.
But despite overwhelming legal and political barriers that ultimately scuttled counting citizens via the census, including a Supreme Court decision, the president had consolidated majority support for the census question.
Fifty-two percent of U.S. adult citizens back Trump’s attempt to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census, according to a new Economist/YouGov poll. The survey, which had a margin of error of 2.9 percent, was released on Wednesday and questioned 1,500 U.S. adult citizens.
This number is consistent with previous polling about the citizenship question. Another recent Economist/YouGov survey measured the public’s support for adding the question at 53 percent, and a Harvard University/Harris poll found a supermajority of American voters, at 67 percent, think the census form should be able to ask about citizenship.
Trump said the citizenship data was essential to formulate public policy in such areas as healthcare, education, civil rights and immigration and complained that his efforts were being stymied by “meritless litigation.”
Flanked by his attorney general and commerce secretary, Trump vowed that court action frustrating his efforts “would not stop us from collecting the needed information” about citizenship.
Attorney General Bill Barr, speaking after Trump, acknowledged the administration would face continued legal battles if it continued to push for the census question and could not “complete the litigation in time to carry out the census.”
Cameron Kerry, who served as the Commerce Department’s general counsel during the printing of the last census, told Newsweek that the absolute imperative of the census is to conduct an accurate count of all U.S. residents, regardless of citizenship status.
“The obligation of the Commerce Department under the Enumeration Clause is to carry out its constitutional duty to count every single person in the United States,” he said. “That is the overriding duty In carrying out the census.”
The controversy over the addition of a question about citizenship on the 2020 census stems from the question’s potential impact on accurate representation in Congress and how the Trump administration went about redeveloping the census to include the question in the first place.
The Census Bureau’s own researchers have determined that asking U.S. residents about citizenship on the 2020 census could lead to an undercount by 8 percent of households with at least one non-citizen. This would translate to a total of nine million people excluded from government census data and many, if not most, of whom would be Hispanic.
The decennial census is used to allocate over $675 billion in federal funds to state and local governments and determines the number of federal representatives assigned to each state. A citizenship question has not appeared on a census form in this way for 70 years.
There are other ways to infer citizenship data without running into the pitfalls of a skewed 2020 census, according to Kerry. The Census Bureau could cross-reference data from various government agencies or perform statistical analysis on its own American Community Survey (ACS), an annual census-like form distributed to a small percentage of households that does include a citizenship question.
Trump on Thursday focused on solely using government agency data, which the president said would be more accurate than responses on the census.
“There have been ongoing efforts in development since the last census to analyze a variety of federal data sources to figure out what information is available to the federal government in other ways,” Kerry said.
In late June, the Supreme Court, by a narrow margin, blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to add the question on procedural grounds, finding that the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, provided insufficient reasons for its decision to inquire about citizenship.
This decision remanded the case back to the trial court, where U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman had previously issued an injunction and instructed the Commerce Department to provide a defensible basis for including the question.
After the Supreme Court’s opinion, the Justice Department confirmed to Newsweek that there would not be a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in a statement to Newsweek on Tuesday, July 2, said that his department had already begun printing the forms without the question.
Then came a tweet from President Trump.
“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,” the president tweeted last Wednesday, after his administration had announced the matter was effectively closed. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
Justice Department lawyers then reversed course, telling a federal judge that they had been instructed to find a way to continue the litigation despite them repeatedly urging throughout the case that the issue had to be put to rest by June 30, several days prior so form printing could begin.
The Justice Department subsequently tried to swap out lawyers who had been defending the government’s position in the case, a move which was stymied by orders from two federal judges who wanted assurances that the switch was not an attempt to evade responsibility for the government’s earlier arguments.
Thursday’s press conference marks the apparent resolution of a years-long effort to implement the citizenship question and months-long legal dispute over its potential impacts on minority communities.