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Federal Lawsuits Filed Against Presidential Administration Over Census Citizenship Question

Created: 29 March, 2018
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read

California State Attorney Xavier Becerra leads the State’s lawsuit.

On Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that all 2020 Population Census forms will include a question regarding the citizenship of participants, as requested by the U.S. Justice Department.

The reinstatement of the citizenship question, according to the Department of Commerce, which manages the U.S. Census Bureau, is to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and collect data on how many eligible voters there are in the U.S.

Since the announcement was made, elected officials across the United States have expressed their opposition to the plan to include inquiries into the citizenship of participants, arguing that such a question can cause immigrants to not answer the census form due to the current political climate which has propelled anti-immigrant rhetoric into the mainstream.

Almost immediately after Ross’ announcement, California State Attorney Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit, against the Trump Administration, this under the argument that such a question is a violation of a constitutional requirement.

“The census numbers provide the backbone for planning how our communities can grow and thrive in the coming decade,” Becerra said through a statement. “What the Trump Administration is requesting is not just alarming, it is an unconstitutional attempt to discourage an accurate census count.”

Becerra’s lawsuit points specifically to a violation of the constitutional requirement for actual enumeration, which the 14th Amendment describes as a count of “the whole number of persons in each state” to be made every 10 years.

The lawsuit expresses that the possible nonparticipation from people in households with noncitizen individuals can “directly impede” the census bureau from attaining an actual enumeration.

“For this foundational step in our country’s democratic process, the Constitution recognizes no exception based on citizenship status,” reads the lawsuit filed by Becerra. “It is long settled that all persons residing in the United States—citizens and noncitizens alike—must be counted to fulfill the Constitution’s ‘actual enumeration’ mandate.”

On Tuesday, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman also stated that his state will be part of a 13-state lawsuit against the question regarding citizenship, expressing that such inquiry will “create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities.”

Information collected by the Census is used to determine congressional representation for each state and to distribute federal funds as seen fit and critics of such question and scholars believe that an undercount can have great consequences.

In an excerpt from an article published by political fact-checking website Politifact, Jennifer Lynne Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, stated that, “if the census counts are biased or flawed, this could affect the number of representatives states have in the House of Representatives.”

With the possibility of noncitizens declining to respond to the census, which would bring down the net total count of people in their respective states of residence, some fear that seats in the House of Representatives and resources might misguidedly shift from communities and districts with greater diversity and immigrant populations towards more homogenous areas with fewer noncitizens.

“If adding the citizenship question reduces coverage of the foreign-born population, it could reduce the amount of federal and state resources allocated to communities that have large shares of immigrants, and it could also reduce representation of states with large numbers of immigrants,” Van Hook said.

In his statement announcing a lawsuit, Schneiderman expresses a similar perspective.

“This move directly targets states like New York that have large, thriving immigrant populations –threatening billions of dollars in federal funding for New York as well as fair representation in Congress and the Electoral College,” Schneiderman’s document reads.

An article by the Washington Posts details that California can potentially lose up to one seat in the House and representation at a national level may experience a shift of power from cities towards rural areas, which would benefit the now-majority Republican Party.

A question regarding citizenship is not new, as a question on citizenship has appeared on virtually every Census survey form from 1890 through 1950

However, starting with the 1970 census, two forms were used to conduct the 10-year count: a short-form questionnaire, sent out to most households and which did not ask about citizenship, and a long form questionnaire, which was sent out to about 1 in every 6 households and inquired about citizenship. The 2010 Census only used the short-form questionnaire.