On March 26, 2018, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made the troubling announcement that a citizenship question would be added to the 2020 Census by the United States Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau. No such question has been asked for decades, and the inclusion of a citizenship question could drastically and negatively alter response rates.
Along with co-counsel Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a lawsuit on April 17, 2018, that challenged this late addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. The lawsuit is on behalf of the City of San Jose and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and the trial is being held with a similar claim by the state of California. The case is being heard in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
The trial began on January 7, 2019, and is expected to conclude on January 15, 2019. The lawsuit claims that the addition of a citizenship question will depress participation rates among immigrant communities and communities of color, resulting in a significant undercount that will consequently result in insignificant funding and resources for those communities. The addition of a citizenship question would also be in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), and unconstitutional under the Enumeration Clause and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit sets out to show that Secretary Ross chose to add the citizenship question without justification and then coerced the Department of Justice to make a formal request for its addition to the 2020 Census, all according to Census Bureau documents. Ross made the decision with the full knowledge that adding a citizenship question would lessen the accuracy of the data and violate specific legal requirements, both in terms of its constitutionality and the necessity that no new topics for the 2020 Census were to be added beyond March 2017.
All of the lawsuit’s claims are based on evidence that the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census will lessen response rates among African American, Latinx, and immigrant communities. San Jose, and other areas with large immigrant populations, will be directly affected because the Census count is used as the basis to distribute more than $675 billion annually in federal funding. Keeping accurate numbers is also relevant for tracking political representation in the House of Representatives and Electoral College.
A concurrent lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General regarding the 2020 Census citizenship question is currently on its way to the Supreme Court. That case, though topically similar, is about a very different issue: whether or not Secretary Ross can be deposed regarding the addition of the citizenship question. The Lawyers’ Committee’s case is focused solely on not allowing the citizenship question to be added to the 2020 Census because of the harm it would cause.