The Trump administration said Tuesday that it would begin printing forms for the 2020 census that do not include a question about citizenship, abandoning its quest to add the query after being blocked last week by the Supreme Court.
The decision was a victory for critics who said asking people whether they are American citizens would skew the census results in favor of Republicans.
The administration was compelled to make the decision after a majority of justices rejected its justification for adding a citizenship question, which the justices said “appears to have been contrived.” The court left open the possibility that the administration could provide an adequate argument, but with a looming deadline to begin printing census forms, Justice Department lawyers said Tuesday that the administration would not continue to plead its case.
The Trump administration had argued that including the citizenship question on census forms was an important part of its efforts to protect the voting rights of the nation’s minority residents. But opponents said that including the question would deter many immigrants and their families, both legal and undocumented, from participating in the census, which could have the effect of shifting political power among the states and between the major political parties.
Here are answers to some key questions about the issue.
What is the census, and how is it conducted?
Under the Constitution, once every 10 years the federal government is required to count every person in the country. The data is gathered mainly by sending each household a form to fill out, asking a set of questions about everyone who is living there on a particular date, including their sex, race, age and many other details. Census workers also visit homes and use other techniques to try to make the count as complete as possible.
The primary purpose is to determine, based on population, how many seats each state will have in the House of Representatives — and by extension, how many votes in the Electoral College. But census data is used for a great many other purposes as well, including the allocation of about $900 billion in federal spending each year. That money helps pay for everything from public schools and Medicaid benefits to law enforcement and highway repairs. State and local governments use the data in similar ways, including setting the boundaries of legislative districts.
Why would asking about citizenship have been such a big deal?
The Justice Department said it wanted the question included in the census because it needed to have a better idea of how many Americans are eligible to vote. The government said it needed that information to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which bars discrimination against racial or language minority groups in the conduct of elections.
That may seem uncontroversial, but critics said it was far from the whole story. They dismissed the voting-rights argument, saying the government’s current estimate of the number of voting-age American citizens would be sufficient for that purpose. They said the citizenship question was actually a central element of a Republican strategy to try to shift political boundaries to the party’s advantage when the states begin using the new census to redraw their district maps in 2021.
Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, has said that he ordered that the citizenship question be added to the standard 2020 census form solely in response to a December 2017 request from the Justice Department. But three federal trial judges ruled that the evidence in the record demonstrated that Mr. Ross was not telling the truth. He had decided long before to add the question, the judges found, and then pressed the Justice Department to supply a rationale.
Opponents say the citizenship question was intended to frighten noncitizens away from participating in the census, whether they were in the country legally or not. The American Civil Liberties Union said that it would make the count less accurate, and would have the effect of diverting federal money and political power away from states and cities where larger numbers of noncitizens tend to live and into the hands of rural areas.
Would the question have affected participation in the census?
The Census Bureau has acknowledged that inquiring about citizenship status could lower the response rate among immigrants and people of color. Census undercounts of minority groups have been a historic problem, attenuating their political influence and sparking distrust about the process, and critics say the citizenship question would make the problem worse.
By one government estimate, about 6.5 million people might not have been counted if the citizenship question had appeared on census forms. Courts have found that Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas might have each lost seats in the House as a result.
But regardless of whether the question appears on census forms, the damage, many experts say, has already been done. The fear engendered by the administration’s immigration policies will make the job of census workers difficult in primarily immigrant neighborhoods even without a citizenship question.
[Read about why immigrant communities are distrustful of the census.]
When the case was argued in April, the Trump administration maintained that the benefits of obtaining more accurate citizenship data by asking the question would offset the potential harm from depressing the response rate among minority groups and noncitizens.
Do other countries ask about citizenship in their censuses?
Some do, including Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany and Mexico, and the United Nations recommends the practice. The United States used to ask some respondents about citizenship as well, but since 1950, the question has not been included in the census forms that most people receive. (A much longer, more detailed questionnaire is sent to a small sample of households chosen at random.)
What did the Supreme Court decide?
Last week, the justices sent the case back to a lower court. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., said the explanation offered by the Trump administration for adding the question was inadequate.
Federal judges in each of the three lawsuits opposing the addition of the citizenship question had ruled that Mr. Ross was not telling the truth about the rationale for adding the question. Information unearthed after those lower courts ruled has cast even more doubt on the government’s explanation.
What additional information did lower courts obtain?
After Thomas B. Hofeller, a Republican strategist, died last summer, his estranged daughter found hard drives in her father’s house whose contents revealed that he had written a report in 2015 saying that adding a citizenship question to the census would give Republicans a significant advantage in drawing new legislative district lines.