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Attorneys General and Civil Rights Advocates Rile Over New Citizenship Question on 2020 Census

— March 28, 2018

A collection of states are busy preparing legal action against the Trump administration after its Commerce Department announced that a new citizenship question will begin appearing on the 2020 U.S. Census.

Including a question on citizenship status was enough to send congressional Democrats and civil rights advocates into a near-frenzy. According to, the pressure mounted to the point where the White House felt compelled to defend itself during a Tuesday conference.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders rebuked critics, many of whom charged the addition of a ‘citizenship question’ could cause immigrants to ignore census requests.

“This is something that’s been part of the census for decades and something that the Department of Commerce felt strongly needed to be included again,” Sanders told reporters.

Sanders, speaking on behalf of the White House, suggested that adding the question is “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters” and could reduce instances of electoral fraud.

An ICE agent on duty. While deportations are down under Donald Trump versus predecessor Barack Obama, the present administration has taken a far tougher stance against illegal immigrants with no outstanding criminal history. Image via U.S.I.C.E. / Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

“This is a question that’s been included in every census since 1965,” claimed Sanders, “with the exception of 2010, when it was removed.”

But a cursory investigation by NPR found the administration’s position tenuous. Over the course of the past several decades, only long-form variations of the U.S. Census included questions about whether respondents were foreign-born or naturalized.

Leading the impending lawsuit is New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. He says the multistate litigation will be backed up by officials from Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington.

The State of California – which recently accused the White House of declaring ‘war’ on its constituents – filed a separate lawsuit Monday night.

“The census is supposed to count everyone,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. “This is a blatant and illegal attempt by the Trump administration to undermine that goal, which will result in an undercount of the population and threaten federal funding for our state and cities.”

Critics of the ‘citizenship question’ have gone so far as to say its inclusion may be a tactic to preclude funding from largely Democratic districts and states.

But a seven-page announcement by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., sought to reassure the attorneys general and those fearful of an undercount. Decades of experience with censuses past, wrote Ross, indicate inquiring about citizenship won’t dissuade people from volunteering their information. And, as the New York Times notes, other democracies like Australia and the United Kingdom regularly ask the same question in their surveys.

Despite Ross’s best attempts, Democrats continued to slam the initiative.

“The federal Census is NOT a tool to rally the President’s base. It’s a constitutionally mandated count of every single PERSON living in our country,” wrote Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on Twitter.

Accusations like Menendez’s don’t come across as unreasonable. A series of short, informal interview requests from The New York Times lent credence to them.

Asked whether she’d willingly participate in a census with a citizenship question, undocumented immigrant Carmen Queveda didn’t waver in her response.

“I would never answer, because I don’t have papers,” said the 46-year old Los Angeles resident. “Obviously, I am afraid. I have a son.”


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