President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is dropping his administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, an abrupt reversal that came after Trump repeatedly insisted he would push ahead with trying to add the question.
Rather than add the question to the 2020 census, which will go to every household in America, Trump instructed other executive agencies to immediately provide all of their citizenship records to the Department of Commerce, which oversees the census. Census Bureau officials authored a memo last year arguing they could better collect citizenship data using existing government administrative records.
Trump’s decision is the latest in a stunning series of twists that have come since the U.S. Supreme Court essentially blocked his administration from adding the question late last month. Justice Department lawyers said they faced a hard deadline of July 1 to print the census questionnaires, and lawyers confirmed on July 2 that the forms were being printed without a citizenship question.
Shortly after, however, Trump dismissed news reports saying he was dropping the question. A day later, lawyers reversed course in court, saying they had been instructed to add the question after all.
Trump has said in recent days that he is interested in citizenship data to help draw electoral district lines, something that happens once a decade. Congressional seats allocated to states and districts are drawn based on the total population, and switching to using only the citizen voting-age population would benefit non-Hispanic whites. States could still use citizenship data the Trump administration obtains through other means to draw districts this way.
Nonetheless, Trump’s decision is a victory for civil rights groups as well as a coalition of states and advocacy groups that successfully sued to block the question from going on the census. The groups argued that adding a citizenship question was a blatant effort to intimidate immigrants and minorities from responding to the census.
The Census Bureau’s own experts said fewer people would respond to the survey on their own if it included a citizenship question. An undercount of the U.S. population would have lasting consequences because census data is used to allocate around $880 billion in federal funds each year and is the baseline for business and academic data.
Had Trump chosen to push ahead with a citizenship question, he likely would have faced an uphill battle in court. The Constitution gives Congress — not the president — power over the U.S. Census Bureau. Although Congress gave the secretary of commerce broad authority over the census, the executive branch is still bound by federal laws that prohibit agencies from making policy decisions without going through certain processes to guarantee fairness. There are also multiple court injunctions in place blocking the citizenship question from going on the census.