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2020 Census Won’t Have Citizenship Question as Trump Administration Drops Effort

The New York Times logo The New York Times 7/2/2019 Michael Wines
a group of people holding a sign: A protest at the Supreme Court in Washington last week as the justices considered a case involving an attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. © J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press A protest at the Supreme Court in Washington last week as the justices considered a case involving an attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said Tuesday that it had ordered the Census Bureau to start printing forms for the 2020 census without a question asking about citizenship, abandoning its quest to add the query after being blocked last week by the Supreme Court.

The decision was a victory for critics who said the question was part of an administration effort to skew the census results in favor of Republicans.

It was also a remarkable retreat for an administration that typically digs into such fights.

Just last week after the Supreme Court’s decision, President Trump said he was asking his lawyers to delay the census, “no matter how long,” in order to fight for the question in court.

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It was unclear what prompted the administration to walk away from its effort.

Word of the action came in a one-sentence email from the Justice Department to lawyers for plaintiffs in a New York lawsuit that sought to block the question’s inclusion in the head count.

The email offered no explanation, but the administration faced weeks or months of additional legal challenges to the question even as the Census Bureau had said it had to begin printing questionnaires by July 1 to meet the April 2020 deadline for conducting the census.

The Supreme Court last week rejected the administration’s stated reason for adding a question on citizenship to the census, and while the decision was not a conclusive ruling, the justices placed a daunting hurdle before the government.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement Tuesday evening that he respected the Supreme Court, but strongly disagreed with its ruling.

“The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question,” he said. “My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate census.”

Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which was among the plaintiffs trying to block the question, said, “Everyone in America counts in the census, and today’s decision means we all will.”

The administration’s decision appeared to end a yearlong battle over whether the Commerce Department broke the law when it decided in March 2018 to tack a citizenship question onto the census, long after other aspects of the questionnaire had been finalized.

The department, which oversees the Census Bureau, had argued that the Justice Department needed a more accurate count of citizens to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but three lower courts ruled that that was an obvious pretext for some other unstated goal.

The department’s explanation was further undermined last month after plaintiffs uncovered computer files from a deceased Republican political strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller, who had first urged the incoming Trump administration in 2016 to consider adding the question to the next census.

The files included a study in which Mr. Hofeller concluded that a citizenship question was central to a strategy to increase Republican political power by excluding noncitizens and persons under voting age from the census figures used for drawing new political boundaries in 2021.

The disclosure led to the reopening of one of the lawsuits opposing the question, and plaintiffs were scheduled to begin new efforts this month to prove that the question was an effort to discriminate against Hispanics for political gain.

On Tuesday, one of the plaintiffs in that suit, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, indicated that it was unwilling to end the lawsuit without further assurances from the administration that the issue of the citizenship question had been fully resolved.

Thomas A. Saenz, the organization’s president and general counsel, said his group wanted to make sure there wasn’t any misinformation spread about there still being a citizenship question.

“No matter what happens, there’s still a lingering hardship from how long the administration had this hanging out there, and the publicity it got,” he said.

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