New Citizenship Question for 2020 Census Faces Legal Challenges

Hannah Astin
Staff Writer

News_Hannah_Census_United States Patent and Trademark Office, WIkimedia

PC: MaryKent Wolff

On Aug. 17, United States District Judge Richard Seeborg allowed two cases filed in federal court in San Francisco to continue.

The lawsuits were filed by the state of California regarding the new citizenship question proposed for the census set for 2020. The legal battle over the question may continue into the final months preceding the 2020 census.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross approved the question. The Census Bureau plans to ask all U.S. households: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”.

Census data helps to decide how federal money is distributed around the country, how congressional seats and Electoral College votes are determined and how to allocate funding for public institutions and services.

Ross argued that these citizenship statistics are also needed to administer the Voting Rights Act’s protections against voter discrimination. However, since 1965 when the Voting Right Act was enacted, the government has relied on the American Community Survey to estimate citizenship numbers. Federal law requires one in 38 households to complete this survey every year.

Seeborg added in his order that he would allow the plaintiffs to argue that the citizenship question is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs can argue that the question may prevent the census from counting every person living in the United States, as people residing in the country illegally may not fill out the questionnaire.

Seeborg wrote in his order that the plaintiffs “make a sufficient showing” that the new citizenship question will affect the accuracy of the census and, “violate the Constitution’s actual enumeration command.”

The plaintiffs also argued that growing anti-immigration sentiment and increased immigration enforcement make the citizenship question especially sensitive.

California is not the only state challenging the new 2020 census questions. In July, a judge in New York stopped the Justice Department’s efforts to throw out two similar lawsuits filed by the state of New York.

The New York judge, District Judge Jesse Furman, agreed with the plaintiffs in California. He said in his order that the plaintiffs, “plausibly allege that [Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’] decision to reinstate the citizenship question was motivated at least in part by discriminatory animus and will result in a discriminatory effect.”

Furman continued that the Trump administration strayed from precedent in “hastily adding” a question regarding citizenship status to the 2020 census.

The cases in New York could face trial in late October. Attorneys for the plaintiffs plan to argue that Ross misused his authority in adding the citizenship question to the census, and that the question is aimed to discriminate against immigrant communities.

However, Furman recognized in his order that Ross has “broad authority” over the census.

“Plaintiffs may not ultimately be able to prove that he exercised that authority in an unlawful manner,” said Furman, as quoted in NPR.

Additionally, there are two lawsuits in Maryland regarding the citizenship question. The fate of these lawsuits remains unclear. District Judge George Hazel has not released a decision on the cases.

The Justice Department has asked Hazel to extend the deadline for filing a motion to dismiss another lawsuit to Aug. 24.



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