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Trump administration’s citizenship question on 2020 census blocked by federal judge

Trump administration’s citizenship question on 2020 census blocked by federal judge
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

A federal judge in San Francisco has blocked a Trump administration move to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census, calling the proposal “arbitrary and capricious” and saying it would harm the state of California and be “contrary to the Constitution.”

In a ruling released Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg said that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had failed to justify his decision to include a citizenship question in the upcoming census.

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The judge said such a question would ultimately hamper the department’s constitutional mandate to conduct an accurate count of the nation’s population by causing noncitizens to avoid enumeration, adding that the question “threatens the very foundation of our democratic system.” The count occurs every 10 years.

“A significant differential undercount, particularly impacting noncitizen and Latino communities, will result from the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census,” Seeborg wrote.

An inaccurate count would be particularly hard on California, the judge said, as state population is used to calculate federal funding and congressional district boundaries.

“The State of California demonstrated that it will suffer a loss of federal funding and face a substantial risk of losing political representation directly traceable to the inclusion of the citizenship question on the census,” the judge wrote.

The Commerce secretary announced last year that he would add the citizenship question in order to “provide complete and accurate data” for the census. Ross said he chose to add the question because the Justice Department said it needed the citizenship data to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

However, in his ruling, Seeborg wrote that Ross’ reliance on Voting Rights Act enforcement to justify inclusion of the citizenship question was “mere pretext and the definition of an arbitrary and capricious governmental act.” Even though a citizenship question had been included in the decennial census in 1950 and before, Seeborg wrote that its inclusion now — amid the national debate over immigration — would interfere with the actual count.

The commerce secretary announced last year that he would add the citizenship question in order to "provide complete and accurate data" for the census.
The commerce secretary announced last year that he would add the citizenship question in order to "provide complete and accurate data" for the census. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Political scientists predicted in court testimony that California would lose billions in federal funds plus at least one and possibly as many as three seats in the House — and the same number of electoral votes — if the citizenship question were to be used next year.

State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, who spearheaded the lawsuit, called the ruling “a great victory, not only for California but for all people who are in the United States of America who deserve to be counted when the next census occurs.”

“No state is more affected by the census than California,” he told The Times. “Because we have the largest population, because we send more tax money to the federal treasury than any state in the nation, because we have the most delegates.”

Plaintiffs in the matter included the state of California, Los Angeles County, the city of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and the cities of Long Beach; Oakland; Fremont, Calif.; Stockton; and San Jose.

A 2018 analysis by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California measured the potential for miscount in individual census tracts, small geographic areas used to more accurately calculate a state’s population. In some of those tracts, researchers estimated as many as 45% of residents might not respond.

Monterey, Los Angeles and Imperial counties, home to the highest, second-highest and fourth-highest percentages of noncitizens in the state, would be most likely to undercount residents, according to the study.

Seeborg is the second judge to bar the addition of a citizenship question.

A federal judge in New York had previously blocked the administration from adding the question, and the U.S. Supreme Court last month agreed to review that decision.

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Becerra said California is prepared to write a friend of the court brief for the Supreme Court case that would not only support the New York ruling, but also buttress claims that the question shouldn’t be allowed on constitutional grounds.

Times staff writers Monte Morin and David G. Savage contributed to this report.

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