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Federal Court Foils Trump Administration Bid to Rewrite Census

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP).

The United States census has not asked respondents whether they are American citizens since 1950. In March 2018, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross brought it back, in a list of potential census questions submitted to Congress. Almost immediately, immigrants’ rights organizations filed multiple lawsuits challenging the question.

On Tuesday, the first ruling came down, addressing two of the lawsuits. Judge Jesse M. Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered the Trump administration to remove the question from the census. Ross, according to Furman, committed multiple violations of federal procedural law, setting up the possibility of appeals that could take the citizenship question all the way to the Supreme Court.

Opponents of the question, as The New York Times writes, say it is an attempt “to turn the census into a tool to advance Republican political fortunes” and discourage immigrants from participating in the census for fear of repercussions, including deportation. Critics also argue, as The Washington Post reports, the lower response rates “make the constitutionally mandated decennial survey more costly and less accurate.”

Supporters, including Ross and the Justice Department, argued the data is necessary for accurate enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Plaintiffs, which between the two cases included 18 states attorneys general, multiple cities and civil rights organizations, cheered the decision. Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU, told the Post “the ruling is a forceful rebuke of the Trump administration’s attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities.”

A key question of the case centered on which agency asked that the question be included in the first place. Ross, the Post writes, “testified before Congress that the original request came from the Justice Department.” That claim seemed to be supported by a December 2017 letter to the Commerce Department from Arthur E. Gary, general counsel for the Justice Management Division of the U.S. Justice Department In that letter, Gary explained the data from the citizenship question “is critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”

The letter, however, was not the whole story. As the New York Times points out, Ross “had begun considering the issue within days of becoming commerce secretary in February 2017,” according to an internal memorandum. Additional documents made public as a result of the lawsuit showed that the Justice Department had even declined initial requests to support the question, and only after what the Times calls “a monthslong campaign, capped by a telephone call by Mr. Ross to the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions,” did the Justice Department agree to offer its support.

In response to Tuesday’s court loss, Kelly Laco, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, told the Post, “We are disappointed and are still reviewing the ruling,” while adding the Trump administration is “legally entitled to include the question on the census.” The administration is expected to appeal the current ruling. Another similar trial is underway in California, with one more scheduled in Maryland for next Tuesday, both of which the administration has attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop.

Ilana Novick
Blogger / Editorial Assistant

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