President Trump on Thursday backed down from his controversial push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, effectively conceding defeat in a battle he had revived just last week and promised to continue despite a recent string of legal defeats.
Trump announced that he instead plans to order every federal agency to give records to the Commerce Department that detail the numbers of citizens and noncitizens in the United States.
“I’m proud to be a citizen, you’re proud to be a citizen,” Trump said at the late afternoon event in the White House Rose Garden. “The only people that are not proud to be citizens are the ones who are fighting us all the way about the word ‘citizen.’ ”
The announcement marked the end of a 19-month push by the administration to ask about citizenship status on the decennial survey, which opponents decried as an effort to systematically undercount Latinos and scare immigrant communities from participating in a survey that helps determine congressional districts and the disbursement of some federal funds.
It also followed days of confusion and mixed signals from the administration over how it would proceed following a Supreme Court ruling late last month that the government could not include the question on the census without a solid justification. The court found the administration’s original rationale for the addition “contrived.”
In the wake of that ruling, the Commerce Department announced last week that it would drop the issue because it needed to begin printing the survey. But a furious Trump reversed that decision the next day, saying that he was not giving up on asking about citizenship.
“We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question,” he tweeted July 3.
On Thursday, however, Trump scrapped that plan and said he would instead instruct agencies to provide Commerce with the records — calling that process “far more accurate.”
But the political tensions over Trump’s push to collect citizenship data and concerns he may have already scared immigrant communities from fully participating in the census are likely to continue even if they are reduced for now.
Earlier Thursday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the Democratic-led chamber will vote Tuesday to hold Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt of Congress for not complying with subpoenas related to the administration’s decision to include the citizenship question.
The White House has asserted executive privilege over the information. House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), whose panel oversees the census, said the president’s announcement would not alter the planned vote.
“The President just admitted what his Administration has been denying for two years — that he wants citizenship data in order to gerrymander legislative districts in partisan and discriminatory ways. This never had anything to do with helping to enforce the Voting Rights Act. That was a sham, and now the entire country can see that.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she is “jubilant” about Trump’s retreat.
“If he had tried to defy the Supreme Court, that would have been a constitutional crisis,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol. “So for the basis of the census and the citizenship question, I’m glad it’s gone. For the basis of the country, I’m glad that he was advised to see the light.”
Barr, who stood alongside Trump and Ross in the Rose Garden, defended the administration’s plan to add the question, but said the effort had to be abandoned because a protracted legal fight would impede the administration’s ability to conduct the 2020 survey.
“We’re not going to jeopardize our ability to carry out the census,” Barr said. “So as a practical matter, the Supreme Court’s decision closed all paths,” adding that it was a “logistical” impediment, not a legal one.
Barr argued that the data is needed regardless of how it is collected, citing congressional apportionment purposes as an example — although the attorney general’s assertion is disputed by experts who note that apportionment is based on the number of “persons” in the United States, not citizens.
Gone unmentioned in the Rose Garden announcement Thursday was the administration’s initial rationale for seeking to add the citizenship question to the census: that the data was needed for the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
While Trump portrayed his executive order on data collection as a new proposal, it is similar to the very approach that the Census Bureau recommended after Ross said he was exploring adding a citizenship question to the form.
In a January 2018 memo to Ross, the bureau’s chief scientist, John Abowd, predicted that adding a citizenship question to the form would result in “major potential quality and cost disruptions” to the 2020 survey, whereas using administrative records would have no impact.
Administrative data comes from existing records collected and maintained by government agencies such as the Social Security Administration. Ross announced in March 2018 that he had decided to use such data along with adding a citizenship question, setting off a year and a half of legal and political battles.
The use of administrative data could provide an accurate determination of citizenship status down to the block level, according to the Census Bureau. That information could not be used to determine the number of congressional seats in each state, but it could be used by states to determine how districts are drawn, and some in the administration have suggested the data could be used to help in immigration enforcement.
Another potential issue with pushing for a citizenship question on the decennial census is that the question, which exists on the bureau’s smaller American Community Survey, has a history of being answered inaccurately when the results are compared with existing administrative data. On that survey, which goes to about 3 million households a year, roughly one-third of noncitizens report that they are citizens, according to Abowd’s memo to Ross.
As news of the president’s planned announcement circulated, critics of the question expressed relief but said the government’s lengthy and highly publicized determination to get it onto the survey will itself likely depress the response rate.
The president’s decision “tells me that he has created chaos for 18 months and put the census in jeopardy only to fall on the original recommendation of the Census Bureau,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. “While I’m pleased that he’s standing down in his push to add the question, at this point his actions will have been reckless and will still have consequences for people’s participation in the census.”
Advocacy groups that had been challenging the administration’s push to include the citizenship question on the 2020 Census promised to closely scrutinize the administration’s plan for collecting citizenship data once it is detailed publicly.
“Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration,” said Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, who argued the census case at the Supreme Court.
Trump’s abrupt reversal last week caused days of chaos and confusion for the pending legal challenges.
This week, the Justice Department sought to replace the team of lawyers assigned to the effort, after at least some career attorneys on the case grew frustrated with the Trump administration’s sudden shift in position, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an internal matter. Two federal judges have since denied that bid.
The Justice Department will “promptly inform the courts that the government will not include a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census,” according to spokeswoman Kerri Kupec. That could end the ongoing litigation — though the decision would ultimately be up to federal judges handling each of the cases.
Trump’s announcement came as litigation is pending in Maryland over whether the government intended to discriminate against minorities when it added the question. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in that case said they would not stop work on it until they receive written confirmation that the government will not add the question to the 2020 Census, particularly after the government’s about-face earlier this month.
“Given the events of the last two weeks, we need an ironclad commitment from DOJ, and an enforceable order from the court. Then the case can be dismissed,” said Denise Hulett, an attorney who represents the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a plaintiff in the case.
Colby Itkowitz, Robert Barnes, Erica Werner, Matt Zapotosky, Scott Clement and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.