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Trump backs away from census citizenship question

Posted at 6:02 PM, Jul 11, 2019

President Donald Trump issued an executive order Thursday directing the Commerce Department to obtain citizenship data through means other than the US census , dropping a controversial plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census after the Supreme Court blocked it.

Trump repeatedly said in Rose Garden remarks that he's not backing away from attempting a count of US citizens, but acknowledged legal setbacks in inserting a citizenship question on the nationwide population survey.

"We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the US population," Trump said in laying out a plan to issue an executive order asking US departments and agencies to find ways to determine a head-count of citizens.

Trump said agencies would be required to provide the Commerce Department with documents and records of citizens and non-citizens, which he said would help provide an accurate picture of US citizenship.

After a week of uncertainty about his next move. Trump tweeted Thursday morning he would be holding a press conference in the Rose Garden in the afternoon about "the census and citizenship."

The Supreme Court late last month blocked a citizenship question from being added to the 2020 census. The bitter controversy centers around whether the administration can ask all recipients a citizenship question on the 2020 census for the first time since 1950 -- a move that could impact the balance of power in states and the House of Representatives, which are based on total population.

Adding the question, critics say, could result in minorities being undercounted by scaring off even legal residents or naturalized citizens from completing the decennial questionnaire, which is also used to determine funding for an array of government programs.

The expected decision to back off the census fight was first reported by ABC News .

The Census Bureau, which falls under the Commerce Department, has long favored using administrative records -- including data from the Social Security Administration, IRS, US Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department -- to gather citizenship data, rather than asking individuals to self-report their status on the census itself.

Key Republican senators said early Thursday they had not been briefed by the White House on the contours of Trump's action. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi who has oversight of the Census Bureau, said he has not had discussions with the White House.

Democrats made clear they were prepared to fight any new effort to add a citizenship question.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that the House of Representatives will vote next week on criminal contempt for Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over their refusal to answer questions about internal discussions surrounding the citizenship question.

"Next week the full house will vote on a resolution of criminal contempt for Attorney General Barr and Secretary Ross so we can enforce our subpoenas and get the facts," Pelosi said. This comes after the House Oversight Committee voted last month to hold Barr and Ross in contempt over the dispute.

The vote has been scheduled for Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer tweeted later on Thursday.

Pelosi, when asked if Trump could still add the citizenship question by executive action, replied: "I don't know."

Some type of direct action by Trump had been one of several avenues explored by the administration to place the question on the decennial population survey following the late June Supreme Court ruling.

The Trump administration initially announced printing would go forward without the citizenship question. Government attorneys had asserted to the courts that the printing process -- either with or without the question -- needed to begin on July 1 to avoid extra costs.

That approach was thrown into disarray when Trump abruptly changed course last week , ordering officials to find another way to add the question -- something the Supreme Court left the door open to in its ruling. White House and Justice Department officials spent the Independence Day holiday considering ways to include the question.

One unanswered question was how the administration would implement the addition of the question to the census forms after printing had begun. Options included reprinting the forms that have been printed without the question, or printing a supplemental page.

Civil rights groups pledged to take swift legal action against any efforts to go ahead with adding a question.

"The Supreme Court has spoken. The Trump administration's effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census is unlawful," Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said on Thursday. "If President Trump takes executive action, we will take legal action."

Even though it is not in session, the Supreme Court would be able to respond to any pressing litigation related to a citizenship question on the 2020 census. The nine justices often handle emergency requests, such as motions from prisoners facing execution, while on recess and out of their columned building across from the Capitol. The justices conduct business through telephone conversations and emails, as well as through information relayed to their law clerks and other court personnel.

Some justices, however, had public plans to travel overseas later this month. Through George Mason University law school programs, Brett Kavanaugh is scheduled to be in England and Neil Gorsuch in Italy. Chief Justice John Roberts, who would oversee the handling of any requests for immediate court action, usually spends some weeks each summer at his vacation home in Maine.

The issue still faces ongoing action in the lower courts.

There is already a motion asking federal Judge Jesse Furman in New York to totally prohibit the administration changing the census or adding the question in any way. A Census Bureau official said during a trial last year that the form could be finalized after June, and as late as October, but only if "exceptional resources" were provided. He did not specify a dollar figure.

Legal maneuvering is expected to stretch through the summer in two federal trial courts. The New York court is set to hear arguments from critics of the question that the government should be sanctioned. In Maryland, a judge recently reopened the trial after an ACLU-led group presented what they say is new evidence the question was proposed with discriminatory motives. A hearing on the evidence is scheduled for after the Labor Day weekend.