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Need to Know: Trump Adds Citizenship Question to Census, Faces Lawsuits From Twelve States

The Department of Commerce announced it would be adding an inquiry about citizenship to the 2020 U.S. census, spurring outrage from federal and state lawmakers, who will now take the matter to court.

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Attorney generals from at least 12 states are preparing to file lawsuits against the Trump administration this week, after the president’s Department of Commerce announced Monday that the 2020 U.S. census would request the citizenship status of every respondent.

According to the New York Times, attorney generals from Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington will join New York AG Eric Schneiderman in a multistate lawsuit against the president, while California is filing its own suit challenging the constitutionality of the recently added citizenship question.

Every 10 years, all American residents are required to fill out a census form, offering crucial demographic information to the federal government that influences everything from Congressional districts to school boards to grant funding for state-level programs. Critics of the new question say such a request is both unconstitutional and directly aimed at reducing immigrant participation in the census.

“The census numbers provide the backbone for planning how our communities can grow and thrive in the coming decade,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said after the addition of the citizenship question was confirmed Monday. “What the Trump administration is requesting is not just alarming, it is an unconstitutional attempt to discourage an accurate census count.”

In Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey reiterated that sentiment, calling the Department of Commerce’s action, which came at the direct request of the White House, entirely illegal.

“The census is supposed to count everyone,” AG Healey told the Times. “This is a blatant and illegal attempt by the Trump administration to undermine that goal, which will result in an undercount of the population and threaten federal funding for our state and cities.”

Since taking office, Trump has focused a significant amount of his time and energy persecuting immigrant populations. In the last year alone, the Trump administration has rescinded protections for children who came to America as children (or “Dreamers”), ramped up raids and detentions through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), and openly fostered a culture of hostility towards immigrants, with a focus on Latinx and more specifically, Mexican-American residents.

In defense of the new census policy, Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that the citizenry question would help to ensure that only citizens were able to vote — a line of logic that leads directly back to Trump’s November 2016 claim that “millions” of undocumented immigrants voted in the last presidential election.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also attempted to defuse scrutiny around the census revision Tuesday, telling reporters that "this is a question that's been included in every census since 1965.” After some quick fact-checking, though, reporters from NPR found that that statement to be false. While a number of smaller American population surveys have asked about citizenship, the official decennial census has not included such a question since 1950.

In addition to the quickly announced lawsuits from 12 states so far, a bipartisan coalition of six former Census Bureau directors has formed to oppose the citizenship question, sending a letter to Ross imploring him to remove the controversial addition.

“There is a great deal of evidence that even small changes in survey question order, wording and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality and truthfulness of response,” the former directors wrote. “The effect of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census on data quality and census accuracy, therefore, is completely unknown.”