The United States Supreme Court delivered a setback to the Trump administration last Thursday when it rejected the administration’s contention that adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census was solely intended to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In fact, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-4 decision, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “was determined to reinstate a citizenship question from the time he entered office; instructed his staff to make it happen; waited while commerce officials explored whether another agency would request census-based citizenship data; subsequently contacted the attorney general himself to ask if [the Department of Justice] would make the request; and adopted the Voting Rights Act rationale late in the process,” according to The New York Times. The Commerce Department oversees the census.
The impetus for adding the question “seems to have been contrived,” Justice Roberts wrote.
Critics of the effort to add a question about citizenship status, which has not been included in the census since 1950, say that its true intent is to intimidate immigrant communities, thus suppressing voter participation by undocumented immigrants, whom the government has targeted for harassment and deportation. This, critics say, will skew congressional representation, causing states with large immigrant populations to lose seats. Federal grants and other outlays are also allocated based on census data.
These charges have been supported by the discovery of computer files belonging to a now-deceased Republican strategist, Thomas Hofeller, in which he wrote that with citizenship information, “states could draw voting districts by counting only eligible voters rather than all residents, as is the current practice,” according to The Times. “That would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites,” Mr. Hofeller wrote.
President Trump has stated on Twitter that he has “asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long,” until the Supreme Court is given additional information with which it can make a “decisive decision” on the matter. On Tuesday afternoon, the Justice Department announced that the administration had abandoned the effort to add a citizenship question, according to CNN.
Elected officials and advocates for immigrants on the South Fork were watching the high court’s deliberations and reacted to last Thursday’s announcement. The Trump administration’s effort represented “a cynical attempt to punish and gain control,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said on Monday. “We need to repudiate them.”
“Efforts to prevent a fair count of all people who are within a municipality or a state harms that municipality or state,” he continued. “We should not bear the brunt for the federal government’s inability to come up with a sane and equitable immigration policy. We shouldn’t be penalized financially as a result of that.” The Trump administration’s efforts, he said, “seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to punish any place that in fact had people within its boundaries that were not citizens, by cutting off funding.”
The court’s decision was “a critical win for democracy,” Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele said in a statement issued Friday. “Each person not counted costs New York thousands of dollars in federal aid,” he said. “The addition of a citizenship question would have resulted in inaccurate census data and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars away from vital programs that support public education, nutrition, health care, crime victims, transportation infrastructure, community development, rehabilitation centers, and unemployment insurance, as well as the size of our congressional representation.”
“The funding piece is critical,” said Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA, the Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island. “We could have stood to lose a lot of money that should be coming into our area for a variety of needs. OLA doesn’t take that lightly. We’re going to be involved in whatever way we can to help ensure that members of the community who might still be too afraid to take part in the census, will hopefully take part. . . . We’re committed to doing everything we can to be sure our East End community is counted.”
As for Mr. Ross’s contention that a citizenship question was intended to help enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, “I call B.S.,” Ms. Perez said.
Andrew Strong, OLA’s general counsel, said that the bluntness of Justice Roberts’s remarks was striking. “The chief justice struck down the question only after explicitly laying out the ways that the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, contrived to lie to Congress and to the Supreme Court about the administration’s true reasons for adding the citizenship question. I think that the willingness of the administration to lie to Congress and the Court on this issue is disturbing.”
But Representative Lee Zeldin of New York’s First Congressional District, a close ally of the president, said via Twitter last Thursday that “the census should ask whether or not the person is a U.S. citizen. This shouldn’t be controversial or partisan.”
Clearly, however, the debate has been both.
“In New York State we are required to educate everyone,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “We make significant investments in what we hope will be future citizens, and it seems absurd to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making good citizens only for them to be deported because the federal government can’t get their act together and deal with this issue.”
“We’re talking about citizens whose parents or family members preceded them,” he said of children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. “It just seems criminal to separate families. We’ve seen that at the border as well. It is to me so counter to what America stands for and the idea of the American dream. We need to keep the dream alive, because that’s what makes this such a great country.”