Supreme Court blocks citizenship question on 2020 Census, for now at least

National News

WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP/ KXAN) — The Supreme Court released an opinion Thursday blocking President Donald Trump’s administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census for now. The court says the Trump administration’s explanation for wanting to add the question was “more of a distraction” than an explanation.

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It’s unclear whether the administration would have time to provide a fuller account. Census forms are supposed to be printed beginning next week.

The court ruled 5-4 on Thursday, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the four liberal justices in the relevant part of the outcome. The decision was a complicated one and it does not stop the Trump administration from asking about citizenship on the census, it just makes it unlikely that a citizenship question could be added in time.

A lower court found the administration violated federal law in the way it tried to add a question broadly asking about citizenship for the first time since 1950.

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The Census Bureau’s own experts have predicted that millions of Hispanics and immigrants would go uncounted if the census asked everyone if they are American citizens.

The citizenship question

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling laid out some of the history of the citizenship question. The census itself has been administered since 1790. Versions of the citizenship question were first listed in 1820. The citizenship question was asked of all households until 1950.

Then from 1960 to 2000, the citizenship question was only asked on an additional questionnaire which goes out to a fraction of the population. In 2010, the question was removed from the census and placed on the smaller American Community Survey instead.

In 2018, Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the question would go back on the 2020 Census because the Department of Justice had requested voting age population data to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

It was the rationale behind the reintroduction of the citizenship question that the majority opinion of the Supreme Court questioned.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the decision to bring the question back “cannot adequately be explained” by the request for more data to enforce the VRA, citing a “significant mismatch between the Secretary’s decision and the rationale he provided.” The opinion went on to state that Secretary Ross began looking into adding this question a week into his position and didn’t seem to be considering VRA enforcement at the time and that the logic of adding the question based on VRA enforcement “seems to have been contrived.”

Texas Reaction

KXAN reached out to the Census Bureau for a comment on this decision and whether or how it will impact their operations in Texas, we are waiting to hear back.

The League of Women Voters of Texas, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to build civic engagement, had been worried about the potential introduction of the citizenship question.

Like many others across the country, their organization feared that adding the citizenship question would stifle both non-citizens and immigrants who are actually citizens from filling out the census.

“I think the one state where the citizenship question would have the biggest impact is here in Texas,” said Stephanie Swanson, League of Women Voters of Texas Issue Chair of redistricting and the census.

Swanson said that both Texas’ high immigrant population and congressional district creation practices as reasons why the citizenship question would have impacted funding and politics in Texas. However she doesn’t think the question will be on the 2020 census after this Supreme Court ruling.

“We are very excited and the partners that we’re working with are very excited that the citizenship question will most likely not be on the census,” she said.

LMV is one of several organizations doing outreach in Texas and around Austin, trying to spread the word about the 2020 Census and answer questions people have.

“We can start talking about what the census actually does not only in terms of it gives us equal representation, it’s also very important for federal services,” Swanson said. “Our tax money that we pay to the federal government comes back to the state based on our population.”

Local leaders of the Austin-Travis County Complete Count Committee said they were “encouraged” but the decision. The group, co-chaired by Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Austin Mayor Steve Adler, issued a statement:

“Having unburdened the census from the repressive citizenship question, City of Austin and Travis County can move forward with working to obtain as accurate of a count as possible, resulting in additional federal funding for our region, and accurate representation during the redistricting process.”

— Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt

The group says if people in Austin and Travis County go unaccounted for, the community could lose funding for Medicaid, Medicare, State Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP), Section 8 Housing, Head Start, National School Lunch Program, Special Education Grants and highway planning and construction.

Texas has not yet created a complete count committee for the state, though many groups, including the Texas League of Women Voters have called for one. The state of California, for example, has invested $100.3 million for a statewide outreach and communication campaign for the 2020 Census.

A bill in the Texas legislature to create such a committee did not make it into law this past session.

Governor Greg Abbott may create a statewide committee, previous Texas governors George W. Bush and William P. Clements issued executive orders to establish statewide complete count committees for the 2000 and 1990 censuses.  KXAN has reached out to Governor Abbott’s team to see if he is considering creating a statewide complete count committee, we are waiting to hear back.

Texas Democrats issued a statement applauding the Supreme Court decision as well.

“The very foundation of our democracy is built on an accurate Census count.  It’s about making sure that every single person is counted and has representation. Real lives are at stake, and when the Census is wrong, then our government shortchanges communities on critical resources like health care, infrastructure, and education. We cannot risk that.” 

— Texas Democrats

But some Republicans feel differently. Travis County GOP Chair, Matt Mackowiak, explained that he supports the citizenship question which he sees as a taxpayer issue.

“If you don’t think tax taxpayer dollars and government services should go to non-citizens to the same extent that they go to citizens, then we have to be able to distinguish between the two categories,” he said.

Mackowiak said he understands why some might have a concern that a citizenship question would deter non-citizens or immigrants from participating. But he feels that would be a “fairly easy fix” to remedy if the government made it clear to participants what the information from the census would be used for.

Mackowiack said he still believes there is a small chance the citizenship question could be added to the 2020 Census.

“But I think there is a sliver of hope that they could still find a way to do this the right way by using the correct administrative procedure, and we’ll see what the lower courts do with it, if they find a better way to do it,” he said.

President Trump reacts

President Donald Trump suggested Thursday that the census be delayed indefinitely as he blasts the Supreme Court decision putting a hold on his administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

He said he has asked government lawyers if they can delay the Constitutionally-mandated Census, “no matter how long” until the Supreme Court is given additional information “from which it can make a final and decisive decision.” Trump tweeted Thursday that it “Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census.”

Federal law states the census must begin April 1.

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