Trump Administration Gives up on Census Citizenship Question

The controversial question may have led to an undercount, threatening to cost San Francisco critical federal funds for the next decade.

A sample census questionnaire. (Courtesy photo)

Conceding defeat after an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling, the Trump administration announced Tuesday that the 2020 Census forms will be printed without the controversial citizenship question.

The announcement comes less than a week after the Supreme Court refused to approve the question, citing the administration’s “contrived reasons” for doing so in a rushed timeframe. President Donald Trump, in turn, questioned if he could delay the 2020 Census altogether.

“The census is supposed to count everyone in the country. Period,” said a relieved City Attorney Dennis Herrera on Tuesday. “It was an attempt to deprive millions of people of a voice. It was yet another brazen attack on immigrants, their families, their neighbors and their allies.”

San Francisco is already one of the hardest cities to count due to the large amount of renters, low-income residents, noncitizens, and young children. A climate of fear among the immigrant communities in the wake of the Trump administration’s crackdowns meant that many were concerned noncitizens would skip the census altogether, resulting in a severe undercount. In April 2018, S.F. joined five other cities and 17 states in a legal coalition led by New York to prevent the question from landing on people’s doorsteps. More jurisdictions and several nonprofits joined the fight later on.

The decennial census is a means to divvy up out critical federal funds for things like transportation, healthcare, and emergency services. It’s also used to draw maps for the more than 327 million people living in some 435 Congressional districts nationwide. With a sizable immigrant population, California warned it had much to lose.  (So, for that matter, did officials in purple to red states with large immigrant populations, such as Arizona and Texas.) But this week, state and local leaders had some good news to celebrate.

“Today, California proved why we fight and win,” said state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who took part in the efforts to combat the question’s addition. “We celebrate a foundational principle of our democracy: that everyone counts. While the Trump administration attempted to silence so many people with its cynical agenda, California, like many others, fought to protect our people, our values, and our resources.”

Since 1950, a question of citizenship has stayed off the decennial census, instead showing up on the annual American Community Survey. The change came seven years after the U.S. Census Bureau handed over confidential information used to incarcerate Japanese Americans.

In this battle, the U.S. Department of Commerce argued that the annual survey wasn’t comprehensive enough as reason to add a citizenship question. During oral arguments in April, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority appeared ready to agree, after lower courts ruled the question unconstitutional.

But different motives emerged when documents from a deceased Republican strategist, Thomas B. Hofeller, revealed that Trump was urged during his presidential transition to include the question because it would “clearly be a disadvantage for the Democrats.” With new political boundaries to draw in 2021, he argued that the subsequent exclusion of noncitizens and minors from the country’s demographics would boost Republican power.

In the end, the Supreme Court sent it back to lower courts.

“The shameful decision to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census was yet another example of the Trump administration’s attempt to erase our communities of color,” said California Assemblymember David Chiu, who represents San Francisco. “It is a relief that the Supreme Court understood what we have known all along — the administration’s reason for adding the citizenship question was dubious at best.”

Trump initially indicated the fight would continue, possibly by delaying the 2020 Census altogether. Instead, the Census Bureau said on Tuesday that it began the process of printing questionnaires, sans new question.

The challenge remains for everyone to be counted. California is home to 10 of 50 counties nationwide considered hardest to count, including Fresno, Sacramento and San Francisco. Supervisors were told in February that, with a quarter of the city’s population at risk of an undercount, $4 billion could be lost in federal funding over the next decade — and negative news of the 2020 Census hasn’t helped.

“Everyone in our community needs to feel safe responding to the 2020 Census and being counted,” said Mayor London Breed last week in response to the Supreme Court ruling. “San Francisco will keep building trust with our immigrant communities and working with community-based organizations and trusted messengers to make sure the census reaches everyone in our city.”

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