This morning, the Supreme Court blocked, at least temporarily, the Trump administration’s effort to include a question about respondents’ citizenship status and thereby undermine the 2020 Census.
The court rejected the Commerce Department’s claim that it sought to add a citizenship question to help the government enforce the Voting Rights Act, upholding lower court rulings that the explanation offered by the administration was essentially a lie. That’s good news, but unfortunately the court did not prohibit the administration from adding a citizenship question to next year’s Census.
Instead, the Court sent the issue back to the Commerce Department, which will now have an opportunity to present an alternative rationale for the citizenship question for the courts to evaluate. For now, it is unclear whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has enough time to do this and still be able to add the question to the 2020 Census. As this case moved through the court, the Census Bureau insisted that a decision one way or the other was required by June of this year to ensure the Census materials could be printed on schedule, so if this issue can’t be resolved before the Census materials have to go to print, the citizenship question will not be included in the 2020 Census.
While right now we may not know whether the 2020 Census will include a citizenship question, what we do know is that a citizenship question would have devastating effects. The Census Bureau’s own research has shown that such a question would reduce participation among households with immigrants, even immigrants who are U.S. citizens, and result in an undercount primarily in urban centers where immigrant groups tend to be concentrated. Such an undercount could rob states with large immigrant populations of seats in the House of Representatives, votes in the Electoral College, and billions of dollars in funding for programs like Medicaid and SNAP that help millions of children.
We also know that there’s a lot of important work that has to be done before the 2020 Census begins next April. The Census Bureau should be focusing on serious issues like mitigating the undercount of young children and securing its IT systems rather than cooking up new defenses of its harmful, racist citizenship question.