Trump Says He Will Seek Citizenship Information From Existing Federal Records, Not the Census – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday abandoned his quest to place a question about citizenship on the 2020 census, and instructed the government to compile citizenship data from existing federal records instead, ending a bitterly fought legal battle that turned the nonpartisan census into an object of political warfare.

Mr. Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was giving up on modifying the census two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked his administration over its effort to do so. Just last week, Mr. Trump had insisted that his administration “must” pursue that goal.

“We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population,” Mr. Trump said. But rather than carry on the fight over the census, he said he was issuing an executive order instructing federal departments and agencies to provide the Census Bureau with citizenship data from their “vast” databases immediately.

Even that order appears to merely reiterate plans the Commerce Department announced last year, making it less a new policy than a means of covering Mr. Trump’s retreat from the composition of the 2020 census form.

A frustrated-sounding Mr. Trump struck a sharply combative tone at the opening of his remarks, saying that his political opponents were “trying to erase the very existence of a very important word and a very important thing, citizenship.”

“The only people who are not proud to be citizens are the ones who are fighting us all the way about the word ‘citizen,’” he added.

Mr. Trump made the clearest statement yet that his administration’s ultimate goal in obtaining data on citizenship was to eliminate noncitizens from the population bases used to draw political boundaries — a longstanding dream in some Republican circles. Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce who spearheaded the effort to add the citizenship question, had long insisted the data was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

“This information is also relevant to administering our elections,” said Mr. Trump. “Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts, based upon the voter eligible population.”

Maps based only on the citizen population would reflect an electorate that is more white and less diverse than the nation at large — and generally more favorable to the Republican Party.

[Mr. Barr said a legal path to census citizenship question exists, but he gave no details.]

Stanton Jones, a lawyer with the firm of Arnold & Porter who helped represent opponents of the question in a federal lawsuit in Manhattan, accused the Trump administration of waging a multimillion-dollar court battle that from its inception was a plot to advance Republican political interests.

“The citizenship question was always a cynical ploy to rig American elections for partisan and racially discriminatory reasons,” he said.

Government experts predicted that asking the question would result in many immigrants refusing to participate in the census, leading to an undercount of about 6.5 million people. That could reduce Democratic representation when congressional districts are allocated in 2021 and affect how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending are distributed.

In a statement, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the department would “promptly inform the courts” that the government would not seek to include a citizenship question on the census.

The United States has never had a central registry of citizens and noncitizens, and in theory Mr. Trump’s order could result in one. But data sharing is supposed to go only in one direction: from other agencies into the Census Bureau but not back out.

The Census Bureau for decades has relied on data from other agencies to check the accuracy of their head counts. For the purposes of obtaining citizenship data, the Census Bureau could identify American citizens with some precision by mining immigration data from the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and data from programs that require citizenship to participate, such as Social Security numbers and some taxpayer identification numbers. Other citizenship data come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which asks a small fraction of the population questions — including on citizenship — every month.

Although noncitizens often falsely respond that they are citizens on the survey, data from other agencies would help weed out those responses. That would provide a reasonably accurate portrayal of citizenship even down to census blocks, the bureau’s smallest population unit, said John Thompson, who ran the bureau from 2013 to 2017.

While the Census Bureau would effectively have data on the citizenship status of most people in the country, the only information that could be released under federal law would be stripped of any identifying details, said Barbara Anderson, a University of Michigan demographer and past chairwoman of the Census Bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee.

Even anonymous statistics that might help outsiders identify someone — such as data on some census blocks as small as apartment houses — are scrambled in a process designed to guarantee confidentiality.

“It’s all extremely protected by privacy laws,” Ms. Anderson said. “Even if the Census Bureau put together administrative records on citizens and noncitizens on an individual basis” — which would not necessarily be compiled into some sort of central registry — “for that to be given to anybody would require a major new law.”

The Census Bureau has said that it intends to provide anonymous data on citizenship to states in 2021, in a data file separate from census results.

Following Mr. Trump to the Rose Garden podium on Thursday, his attorney general, William P. Barr, said that any administration move to modify the census would have survived legal review, but only after a lengthy process that would have jeopardized the administration’s ability to conduct the census in a timely manner.

“Put simply, the impediment was a logistical impediment, not a legal one,” Mr. Barr said. “We simply cannot complete the litigation in time to carry out the census.”

The announcement was an anticlimactic end to a showdown that Mr. Trump escalated, in seeming defiance of the Supreme Court’s June ruling on the census question, with a July 3 post on Twitter announcing that his administration was “absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”

Even as he waved a white flag on substance, Mr. Trump was still firing angry rhetorical shots.

“As shocking as it may be, far-left Democrats in our country are determined to conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst,” he said. “They probably know the number is far greater, much higher than anyone would have ever believed before. Maybe that’s why they fight so hard. This is part of a broader left-wing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen and is very unfair to our country.”

But Mr. Trump’s critics relished the moment as an example of punctured hubris. Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement that Mr. Trump’s “attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper.”

“He lost in the Supreme Court, which saw through his lie about needing the question for the Voting Rights Act,” said Mr. Ho, who argued the Supreme Court case. “It is clear he simply wanted to sow fear in immigrant communities and turbocharge Republican gerrymandering efforts by diluting the political influence of Latino communities.”

The end of the legal challenges over the census question, though, does not mean that the battle over citizenship is over. Using the data to redraw districts could change the balance of power in American politics.

Places with large numbers of residents who cannot vote — including children, noncitizens who are in the country legally, unauthorized immigrants and people disenfranchised after committing felonies — on the whole tend to be urban and to vote Democratic. Districts based on equal numbers of eligible voters would generally move political power away from cities and toward older and more homogeneous rural areas that tend to vote for Republicans.

Whether drawing districts based on equal numbers of eligible voters is permitted by the Constitution is an open question, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her 2016 majority opinion in Evenwel v. Abbott.

“We need not and do not resolve whether, as Texas now argues, states may draw districts to equalize voter-eligible population rather than total population,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

When the Evenwel case was argued, opponents of counting only eligible voters said there was a significant practical obstacle: There was no reliable data on which to base such districts. Mr. Trump contended on Thursday that his plan would address that issue.

Opponents of the citizenship question swiftly condemned Thursday’s announcement, calling Mr. Trump’s position largely a face-saving measure.

“The government already has access to all of this citizenship data through administrative records, and already studies it,” said Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the chief executive of the Leadership Conference. “Trump just didn’t want to admit defeat.”

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/11/us/politics/census-executive-action.html

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