Trump wades into his administration's census battle

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

President Trump, defending his administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census for the first time in 70 years, described opponents as “Radical Left Democrats” in a tweet Monday morning.

“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together!”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and President Trump. (Photos: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has attempted to add a citizenship question to the census, a maneuver that many critics say would reduce the accuracy of responses in immigrant communities due to fear of deportation. Missing responses would undercount minorities, costing localities federal funds that are apportioned on the basis of population and affecting the drawing of congressional districts. The last time the U.S. census asked all households a question about citizenship was in 1950, when it asked where each person was born and in a follow-up question, “If foreign born — Is he naturalized?”

Two federal judges have now ruled against the question, disagreeing with the methods and rationale of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department handles the census.

“In short, the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census threatens the very foundation of our democratic system — and does so based on a self-defeating rationale,” U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern District of California wrote in March, in a suit brought by the state of California.

The Trump administration argues that including the question on the census will aid in enforcing the Voting Rights Act and protect minorities from discrimination.

Seeborg called that rationale a “sham justification.”

“This question is, however, quite effective at depressing self-response rates among immigrants and noncitizens, and poses a significant risk of distorting the apportionment of congressional representation among the states,” Seeborg wrote.

In January, Judge Jesse Furman in the Southern District of New York also ruled against the Commerce Department and in favor of the state of New York. In the ruling, Furman said that Ross had violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which governs how federal agencies handle regulations, in a number of ways when adding a citizenship question to the census.

“[Ross] failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices — a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations,” wrote Furman.

“To conclude otherwise and let Secretary Ross’s decision stand would undermine the proposition — central to the rule of law — that ours is a ‘government of laws, and not of men,’” Furman added, quoting President John Adams.

Plaintiffs against the administration have attempted to depose Ross, but the Supreme Court blocked the interview in October. Ross was under oath for a seven-hour hearing with the House Oversight Committee last month, in which he struggled to explain why he sought the inclusion of the citizenship question into the census. Ross has attempted to claim that the question was only added after a Justice Department request, but there is evidence showing Ross was advocating for the addition of the citizenship months before the Justice Department letter was received. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., pointed out that Ross had received an email from then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who built his reputation on a campaign to stamp out (mostly nonexistent) voting fraud, citing the importance of the citizenship question.

“I do not know anyone who truly believes that the Trump administration is interested in enhancing the Voting Rights Act,” said Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., in his opening statement, rebutting Ross’s stated reason for adding the question. “This administration has done everything in its power to suppress the vote, not to help people exercise their right to vote.”

Cummings gave Ross a deadline of Monday, April 1, to tell the committee whether the Commerce Department would share previously requested and unredacted documents about the census question addition. If Ross does not agree, Cummings said that the panel “will consider compulsory process to obtain the documents” at a meeting Tuesday.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hold an April 23 hearing on Furman’s ruling, and Seeborg’s decision will also likely land before the high court. Trump’s tweet came nine minutes after MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” aired a segment on the census question.

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