At least 12 states have responded with a wave of fury and legal action this week after the Trump administration announced it would add a question to the 2020 census asking respondents whether they are U.S. citizens.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he would lead a multistate coalition to block the decision the Commerce Department announced on Monday. The addition of a citizenship question is highly controversial, and civil rights groups have long claimed it could jeopardize the accuracy of the census.
“A fair and accurate count of all people in America is one of the federal government’s most solemn constitutional obligations,” Schneiderman said in a statement released Tuesday. “The Trump Administration’s reckless decision to suddenly abandon nearly 70 years of practice by demanding to know the citizenship status of each resident counted cuts to the heart of this sacred obligation – and will create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities that would make impossible both an accurate Census and the fair distribution of federal tax dollars.”
The states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington quickly said they would join the lawsuit, with state officials condemning the citizenship question as an “arbitrary” one that would “only do harm.”
California filed its own lawsuit earlier on Tuesday after the state’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, called the new question “alarming” and an “unconstitutional attempt to discourage an accurate census count.”
The census is constitutionally mandated every 10 years and must count every resident in the United States, citizen or not. The results inform everything from political boundaries to the allocation of more than $675 billion a year in federal funding.
The decennial survey has not asked all households about citizenship since 1950, and critics say doing so will lead fewer people to respond, especially in minority communities experiencing heightened distrust of the federal government. A memo released in September found that respondents expressed growing concerns to field researchers about the confidentiality of their census answers. Some people said they would be providing false information due to worries about their immigration status.
Yet the White House defended the inclusion of the citizenship question, and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “necessary ... to protect voters.”
“I think that it is going to determine the individuals in our country, and provide information that allows us to comply with our own laws and with our own procedures,” she told reporters at a press briefing in which she falsely claimed that a citizenship question had been included “in every census since 1965.”
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also addressed those concerns in his announcement on Monday, saying other Western countries ask similar questions and that the “need for accurate citizenship data” outweighed fears of a lower response rate.
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also said his organization, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, will sue.
“The addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire is a direct attack on our representative democracy,” he 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.”
Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to specify that the decennial census has not asked all households a question about U.S. citizenship since 1950. (In later decades, a smaller number of households did receive a version of the census form that included a question about citizenship.)