The Trump administration said Tuesday that it will not ask about citizenship status on the 2020 census, backing off a contentious effort to reinstate the question over objections from opponents who successfully argued to the Supreme Court that it would disenfranchise minority groups.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who originally directed the Census Bureau to add the question, said in a statement that he was moving ahead with printing the 2020 census despite his disagreement with the court’s ruling last week.
“I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” Ross said in a statement Tuesday. “The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question. My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate census.”
The order to print came suddenly, surprising attorneys who had challenged the Trump administration.
As recently as Monday, President Donald Trump had said his administration was looking for ways to delay the once-a-decade tally so that the question could be included.
“We’re looking at that very strongly,” he told reporters at the White House.
Trump cited the census’ key role in determining how government resources are spent.
“I think it’s very important to find out if somebody is a citizen as opposed to an illegal,” he said. “I think there’s a big difference, to me, between being a citizen of the United States and being an illegal.”
Trump also said last week he was looking at pushing a delay in the population count over the issue, which he’s positioned as part of his broader crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
“I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long, until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter,” he wrote on Twitter.
The government had initially said that Monday was the deadline to begin printing forms. As late as Monday afternoon, however, the administration asked a federal judge in Maryland for more time to decide how it would proceed following the Supreme Court decision.
On Tuesday afternoon, shortly before the rescheduled hearing was set to start, a Justice Department lawyer told plaintiffs the administration was moving ahead with printing.
“We can confirm that the decision has been made to print the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire without a citizenship question, and that the printer has been instructed to begin the printing process,” Kate Bailey, a trial attorney with the Justice Department, wrote in an email to other attorneys involved in the case on Tuesday.
In the Maryland hearing, Judge George Hazel instructed the parties to put in writing by next week an agreement on how the census would move forward, according to the one of the plaintiffs in the case, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Supreme Court decision led to uncertainty
The outcome was uncertain until Tuesday because the Supreme Court ruling last week that blocked the question from appearing for the time being had left the door open for the administration to present a new rationale.
Since March 2018, Ross had justified the question as necessary to enforce voting protections, citing a request from the Justice Department. “We are responding solely to the Department of Justice’s request,” Ross testified before Congress.
Critics saw holes in that case with the disclosure that Ross himself had asked the Justice Department to send such a letter. Communications between Ross and White House officials about the question emerged, and Ross was seen writing to an aide, “I am mystified why nothing have (sic) been done in response to my months old request that we include the citizenship question. Why not?”
Most recently, challengers of the question presented an unpublished 2015 study by a Republican redistricting expert as evidence that citizenship data would benefit Republicans when new political boundaries are drawn based on the 2020 census.
The Supreme Court ultimately described Ross’ explanation for including the question as “contrived” and “incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decision-making process.”
The process of preparing a new justification was expected to take months, including a lengthy court review that could return to the Supreme Court, delaying the process of printing hundreds of millions of forms and other materials and preparing for the count.
Delaying the printing process is possible, but expensive, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist told a court last year. He said it would be possible if “exceptional resources” are available. But a group of House Democrats signaled Tuesday they would not vote in favor of moving the census date.
“This is a victory on the eve of the Fourth of July we are celebrating equal justice for all,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, one of multiple states, cities and other groups to challenge the question in court.
Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union, which was part of the New York case, said, “Everyone in America counts in the census, and today’s decision means we all will.”
Attorneys involved in the challenges said the court has given the government until Monday to negotiate written wording.
“We’re happy about the development but want to make sure it is thorough and complete,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was among groups challenging the question.
He told CNN on Tuesday he was concerned that the administration might find other ways to undermine the count.
Even without the question on the census forms, it remains unclear if the Census Bureau will still publish a file of citizenship data when it releases the census results in early 2021. The bureau’s chief scientist, John Abowd, said in May that regardless of the high court’s decision, the bureau was operating as if it was still expected to produce the data using so-called administrative records compiled from government data.
If the bureau does so, it could set the stage for another legal battle over who counts for the purpose of drawing congressional districts.
The Census Bureau has not responded to a request for comment from CNN.