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California Officials Challenge Trump Administration’s Plan to Include Citizenship Question in 2020 Census

Progressives, states and civil rights advocates are preparing a flurry of legal challenges to the Trump administration's decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, saying the move will penalize immigrants and threaten civil rights.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks during a press conference at the California State Capitol on March 7, 2018 in Sacramento, California. (Credit: Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks during a press conference at the California State Capitol on March 7, 2018 in Sacramento, California. (Credit: Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

The late Monday move from the Commerce Department, which it said came in response a request by the Justice Department, would restore a question about citizenship that has not appeared on the census since the 1950s. The administration said the data was necessary to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The state of California immediately challenged the plan in federal court.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla trashed the move as anti-immigrant.

"The citizenship question is the latest attempt by President Trump to stoke the fires of anti-immigrant hostility," Padilla said in a statement. "Now, in one fell swoop, the US Commerce Department has ignored its own protocols and years of preparation in a concerted effort to suppress a fair and accurate census count from our diverse communities. The administration's claim that it is simply seeking to protect voting rights is not only laughable, but contemptible."

Former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder also blasted the move and said his organization, which focuses on voting enfranchisement and redistricting, would also pursue litigation against what he called an "irresponsible decision."

Holder said contrary to the rationale presented by the Justice Department, he and other modern-era attorneys general were "perfectly" able to handle those legal matters without such a question on the Census.

"The addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire is a direct attack on our representative democracy," Holder said in a statement. "Make no mistake -- this decision is motivated purely by politics. In deciding to add this question without even testing its effects, the administration is departing from decades of census policy and ignoring the warnings of census experts."

Critics of the move say that including such a question on a government survey will scare non-citizens and vulnerable immigrant communities into under-reporting. By undercounting these populations, they argue, there will be a major impact that follows on voting and federal funds.

Because the once-a-decade census is used to determine congressional and political districts and to dole out federal resources, an undercount in heavily immigrant areas could substantially impact certain states and major cities and potentially their representation at the federal level.

The question has not been on the full census since the 1950s, but does appear on the yearly American Community Survey administered by the Census Bureau to give a fuller picture of life in America and the population.

The Commerce Department said the decision came after a "thorough review" of the request from the Justice Department. The priority, Commerce said, was "obtaining complete and accurate data."

"Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the VRA, and Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts," the statement said.

Becerra and his state have been central to virtually every legal challenge of the Trump administration on issues ranging from immigration, to the environment, to health care. The Justice Department has also sued California over its so-called sanctuary policies to protect immigrants.

More challenges could soon follow.

Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, a nonprofit that works on issues of justice and civil rights, said the question had no place in the Census.

"Our Constitution requires a complete and accurate count of everyone living in the country, no matter her or his citizenship status. The administration's decision to add a citizenship question is at best a dramatic misstep, and at worst a politically-motivated move that will undermine a fair and accurate census," Weiser said. "This question is a dangerous move that could lead to a serious skewing of the final census results, which would have a deleterious effect on our system of representative democracy. We urge the administration to reconsider."