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Politics

Trump backs down in fight over census citizenship question

President Trump and Atty. Gen. William Barr at an event in the White House Rose Garden at which Trump announced the government would give up its effort to add a question about citizenship to the census.
(Olivier Douliery / TNS)
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President Trump backed down Thursday from his fight to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, denouncing Democrats and “extremely unfriendly” courts while essentially conceding defeat on a priority issue for his administration and reelection campaign.

Further efforts to add a citizenship question would delay the legally mandated census because of the expected court battles, Trump said in the White House Rose Garden.

Instead, he said, he would issue an executive order telling the Homeland Security Department, the Social Security Administration and other federal departments to share records with the Census Bureau to allow it to develop estimates of the total noncitizen population, something those agencies mostly already do.

Even if the federal government gathers such data, it will not have the same impact as census numbers, which are used to determine where to spend federal dollars and how many members of Congress each state gets.

In a statement, the Justice Department officially acknowledged the defeat, saying it would “promptly inform the courts that the government will not include a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census.”

Trump, who hates to admit failure, insisted that “we are not backing down,” even as he seethed that the successful legal challenge was “part of a broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen.”

It wasn’t the first time Trump has vowed to fight a pitched battle, only to back down while claiming victory. The president also retreated after a 35-day partial government shutdown in a fight with Congress over building a border wall and in several disputes with Mexico when he threatened to close the border or levy punitive tariffs.

Speaking under cloudy skies, Trump foreshadowed his intent to use the issue in his 2020 reelection campaign, casting the courts as insufficiently conservative and in need of further overhaul.

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“Are you a citizen of the United States?” Trump said sarcastically, imitating a census taker. “Oh, jeez, I’m sorry, I just can’t answer that question.”

Atty. Gen. William Barr also tried to put a victorious patina on the retreat, offering Trump lavish praise.

“Congratulations, again, Mr. President, on taking this effective action,” he said.

Trump’s critics were as jubilant as he was angry.

“Trump’s attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper,” Dale Ho, the head of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, who argued the case in the Supreme Court, said in a statement.

“He’s backing down and taking the option that he rejected more than a year ago. Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration,” he added.

The Supreme Court ruled two weeks ago, in a 5-4 decision, that the Trump administration’s rationale for adding a question about citizenship to the census was “contrived.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who cast the deciding vote in the case, left Trump a slim opening if his administration could quickly come up with a legally plausible reason for adding the question.

The issue has enormous importance to California and other states with large immigrant populations.

Experts had warned that adding a citizenship question would probably cause many immigrants to not respond to the census at all, lowering population counts in states where their numbers are high and giving relatively more power to states with lower immigrant populations.

In the days since the high court’s ruling, Trump struck a defiant tone, insisting he would find a way to add the controversial question to the census.

The timing, however, made that process difficult. The administration had told courts that it needed to begin printing census forms by July 1, and the Commerce Department, which oversees the census, announced last week that it had begun printing forms without the citizenship question.

Trump has been reluctant to give up the fight — an important one to his political base — not only because it could help Republican states gain more influence but also because it touches on the immigration issue at the heart of Trump’s reelection campaign.

Administration officials had explored a variety of ways to try to revive the citizenship question, but Justice Department lawyers had told the White House their proposals were unlikely to work.

And Trump’s shifting legal strategies have frustrated lower-court judges, who have demanded more consistent answers from administration lawyers caught off-guard by Trump’s tweets.

The option that the president touted during his Rose Garden remarks — using official records to determine how many noncitizens live in the United States — is precisely what Census Bureau officials proposed more than a year ago when Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the bureau, suggested adding a question about citizenship to the population count.

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Using records from the Social Security Administration, the IRS and other federal agencies, government statisticians can already estimate about 90% of the noncitizen population, rivaling the accuracy that the census would provide, the bureau’s chief scientist told Ross in a memo that became part of the court record.

That approach would be cost-effective and would provide the information the government might need without causing some people to refuse to answer the census, the memo said. Ross rejected that approach.

Administration critics have cited the memo ever since as evidence that what others saw as a problem — a potential undercount of both legal and undocumented immigrants and other minority groups on the census — was precisely what the administration was hoping to achieve.

Trump portrayed his executive order as necessary to allow federal agencies to share data with the Census Bureau. Most already do, although the census has been negotiating with the Department of Homeland Security over access to some citizenship and naturalization records.

In defending the need for accurate data on the number and location of noncitizens in the country, both Trump and Barr alluded to the possibility that some states might choose to draw congressional districts on the basis of citizen population only.

Under the Constitution, the number of congressional districts allocated to each state is based on “counting the whole number of persons,” and the same count of total population is currently used to draw district lines in all states.

But some conservatives have advocated that states switch to a citizen-based population count to draw district lines.

In states like Texas, where the idea has been actively considered, such a move would sharply shift political power away from cities with large immigrant populations — and mostly Democratic representatives — in favor of more Republican rural areas.

The Supreme Court has left open the issue of whether the Constitution would allow a switch to citizen-based districting.

About an hour before he was scheduled to speak, Trump showed his frustration over the issue during a speech to conservative social media activists.

“We spend $20 billion on a census,” he said. “‘How many toilets do they have?… What’s their roof made of?’… The only thing we can’t ask is, ‘Are you a citizen of the United States?’”

Earlier in the day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) announced that the chamber would vote next week to hold Barr and Ross in contempt for their refusal to turn over documents related to the administration’s efforts to add the citizenship question to the census.

 
David Lauter is the Los Angeles Times’ Washington bureau chief. He began writing news in Washington in 1981 and since then has covered Congress, the Supreme Court, the White House under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and four U.S. presidential campaigns. He lived in Los Angeles from 1995 to 2011, where he was The Times’ deputy Foreign editor, deputy Metro editor and then assistant managing editor responsible for California coverage.
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