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The real problem of Trump's citizenship question

By Raul A. Reyes
Updated 12:06 PM ET, Thu July 4, 2019

(CNN) Even by the chaotic standards of the Trump administration, the battle of whether to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census has become bizarre.

The Supreme Court last Thursday temporarily barred the addition of the controversial question. In response, the President tweeted that he asked government lawyers if they can delay the census "no matter how long." But on Tuesday, the government announced that it was going ahead with printing the census forms without the question, basically rendering the issue moot.

Case closed, right? Nope. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that news reports about the Commerce Department "dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect, or to state it differently, FAKE!" He said the government was moving ahead with its case to add the question, a position later confirmed by a Justice Department official.

And on Thursday, Axios reported that administration sources said the President is considering issuing an executive order to add the citizenship question. If he did that, it's unclear whether the Supreme Court would affirm that use of his executive power.

Although Monday was the deadline by which the administration was supposed to have given the go-ahead to printing the census forms, for now the Trump administration seems to be recommitted to further gumming up the decennial count of who is in the United States.

Logistically and legally, it would be problematic to delay the census. Trump's apparent willingness to do so underscores his disregard for our Constitutionally-mandated national count and his politicizing of what should be a nonpartisan exercise.

Each census has an enormous impact on everyone living within our borders. Census data is used to decide congressional districts and how much money state and local governments get for infrastructure, social services, education, and housing. The proposed citizenship question has been controversial because experts and Latino advocacy groups have been united in their belief that it would result in an undercount of the Hispanic population.

The Trump administration maintained that citizenship data was necessary to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Before the Supreme Court ruled on whether the citizenship question could be added to the census, the Trump administration had insisted that July 1 was an important deadline. "The Census Bureau must finalize the census forms by the end of June 2019 to print them on time for the 2020 decennial census," wrote US Solicitor General Noel Francisco in a court brief filed in January. However, NPR reporting notes that since the court made its ruling, administration officials have not spoken about the census with such urgency. So, what changed?
The only thing that has changed is a Supreme Court decision the administration did not like. The high court ruled that the administration's basis for adding the question was "pretextual" and failed to provide a legitimate reason for including it. The majority held that the administration could try to come up with another rationale and submit it to the court for review. The problem is, that all takes time.

While it is unclear how the Justice Department will proceed with its apparent mandate to pursue the citizenship question issue -- it could go back to the lower courts or perhaps make a special appeal to the Supreme Court again -- the census is still a pressing matter. Consider that about 600 million documents need to be printed, and then organized to be sent to 130 million households. The first forms are slated to be sent in January to rural Alaskans.

If the administration dallies on moving ahead with the census, the timetable for the count could be at risk. Former Census Bureau Director John Thompson has warned that delaying the census would cost more money and would likely increase the chances of errors.

Delaying the census could also put the administration at risk for breaking the law, as Title 13 of the US Code mandates that the decennial census of population take place every 10 years, 'as of the first day of April.'"

Trump has shown himself to be ignorant of what is at stake here. "I think it's very important to find out if somebody is a citizen as opposed to an illegal," he said on Monday. "There's a big difference to me between being a citizen of the United States and being an illegal."

In fact, the proposed citizenship question on the census does not inquire about immigration status. It only asks if a person is a US citizen. A person who answered "no" is not necessarily an undocumented immigrant -- he or she could be a green card holder or a foreign national on a work or student visa. How telling it is that Trump apparently equates all non-US citizens present in the country as "illegal."

True, some people think the US should have a count of how many citizens are living here. But the government can get that information from the American Community Survey.

Sadly, the ongoing controversy over the citizenship question -- coupled with Trump's increased immigration enforcement actions -- means that damage has already been done among immigrant communities. Fear of this administration will likely keep many Latino and immigrant families from responding to the census anyway.

The government should not make matters worse by slow-walking the process. Nor should Trump be giving the public political whiplash by making policy decisions by tweet because the more confusion that is sowed over the census, the more likely it is that some people opt out.

The 2020 census is not Trump's census, it is our census. It is by and for the American people, and it must be carried out without further delay.

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