Trump abandons fight to put citizenship question on census, says data can come from existing records

US President Donald Trump waves as he arrives at the White House after a trip to Asia on June 30, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Alex Edelman | AFP | Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Thursday dropped a fight to put a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 census — but ordered federal agencies to give the Commerce Department all records requested that could detail how many citizens and non-citizens live in the United States.

Trump did not, as had he had been expected earlier in the day, order the question to be asked on the census.  

Attorney General William Barr said at a press conference that the question will not be asked on the census, acknowledging that a recent Supreme Court ruling had made doing so difficult, if not impossible.

“We’re not going to jeopardize our ability to carry out the census,” Barr said.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, who argued the Supreme Court case challening the citizenship question, said afterward: “Trump’s attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper.”

“He lost in the Supreme Court, which saw through his lie about needing the question for the Voting Rights Act,” Ho said. “It is clear he simply wanted to sow fear in immigrant communities and turbocharge Republican gerrymandering efforts by diluting the political influence of Latino communities.”

Trump on Thursday defended his original plan to have the question asked, and claimed that his order directing agencies to share citizenship data would make the actual count of non-citizen “far more accurate” than it would have been if the question was on the census.

“The Department of Commerce sensibly decided to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census as has been done many, many times throughout the history of the United States,” Trump said. “Unfortunately this effort was delayed by meritless litigation.”

“The Supreme Court ultimately affirmed our right to ask the citizenship question, and very strongly it was affirmed,” the president said. “But the Supreme Court also ruled that we must provide further explanation that would have produced even more litigation.”

The president said those delays “would have prevented us from completing the census on time.”

He called the situation “deeply regrettable.”

“I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and noncitizens in our country,” Trump said.

“They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately. We will utilize these vast federal databases to gain a full, complete and accurate count of the noncitizen population, including databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.”

Earlier in the day, the president had been expected at that press event to announce an executive action mandating that participants in the census be asked if they are a U.S. citizen or not.

The Supreme Court in a decision last month effectively barred the Trump administration from adding such a question to the census, as it had planned to do.

Last week, administration officials said census forms would be printed without the question.

But on the heels of their comments, Trump announced on Twitter that he would not abandon the effort to add the question.

“We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question,” Trump wrote.

He later told reporters, when asked if he would issue an executive order: “We’re thinking about doing that.”

“It’s one of the ways,” he added. “We have four or five ways we can do it. It’s one of the ways and we’re thinking about doing it very seriously.”

Justice Department lawyers told a federal judge last Friday that they would continue legal efforts to add the citizenship question.

But in their filing that offered no explanation of how the Justice Department believed it could win that fight.

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