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Trump Expected To Renew Push For Census Citizenship Question With Executive Action

President Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2018
Nicholas Kamm
President Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2018

President Trump is expected to take executive action to try and add a question about U.S. citizenship status to forms for the upcoming 2020 census, a source familiar with the matter tells NPR.

It's the administration's latest effort in a more than year-long legal fight to include the question, which has been blocked by the Supreme Court for now.

The question asks, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

Trump is expected to announce the executive action Thursday afternoon at the White House.

The move is expected to spark additional litigation from the dozens of states, cities and advocacy groups that challenged the administration's first attempt to include the question. In Maryland, a federal judge is currently reconsidering discrimination and conspiracy allegations against the question, and in New York, another judge is reviewing an alleged cover-up of the administration's real reason for wanting the question.

Justice Department and Commerce Department officials have said that printing has started for paper forms that do not include the question.

Last month, the Supreme Court blockedthe citizenship question from the census for now. A majority of the justices rejected the administration's original stated justification — to better protect the voting rights of racial minorities — for appearing "contrived." Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, formally approved adding the question last year after pressuring Commerce officials for months to find a way to include the question.

The court's decision does leave open the possibility for the administration to make another case for the question. But it's not clear if an executive order could clear a path that would allow the administration to overcome lower court orders that continue to block the question from census forms.

Census Bureau research suggests including the question is highly likely to discourage an estimated 9 million people from taking part in the constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the U.S. Critics of the question worry that could lead to undercounts of immigrant groups and communities of color, especially among Latinx people.

That could have long-term impacts on how political representation and federal funding are shared in the U.S. through 2030. Census results determine each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes for the next decade. They also guide how an estimated $880 billion a year in federal tax dollars are distributed for schools, roads and other public services in local communities.

The Census Bureau has continued to recommend against adding the question, which researchers say would produce self-reported responses that are less accurate and more costly to gather compared to existing government records on citizenship. Ross has authorized the bureau to compile those records, and bureau officials have said they are waiting for "guidance" on whether to release that information, which would be anonymized to not identify individuals.

With just over six months left until the official census kick-off in rural Alaska, any changes to census forms going forward could jeopardize the final preparations for the count. Census Bureau officials have testified that the deadline for finalizing the questionnaire could be pushed back to Oct. 31, but only "with exceptional effort and additional resources."

"I have no intention of allowing this flagrant waste of money," Rep. José Serrano of New York, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Census Bureau, said in a written statement released Tuesday. "I once again urge the Trump Administration to give up this fight and allow for a depoliticized and accurate census, as we always have."

Still, President Trump has been vocal in not wanting to back down. His tweets after Justice and Commerce officials announced that printing had started without a citizenship question signaled a marked pivot towards a prolonged legal battle.

This week, Trump's reelection campaign sent emails to ask supporters to complete an online survey that asked if they believed the 2020 census should ask people is they are "American citizens."

"We can't Keep America Great for all Americans if we don't know who's in this country," said the email, signed by "Team Trump 2020."

Attorneys defending the administration, however, will be coming from a new team of Justice Department lawyers. This week, in an unusual move, the administration tried to get judges to approve a complete turnover of every single career DOJ attorney who has been working on the ongoing lawsuits for months. The Justice Department has not provided an explanation for why it wants the change. So far, two federal judges have rejected those requests while allowing the administration to try again to swap out the attorneys.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.