Trump turning to non-census avenue on citizenship question

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Donald Trump

President Donald Trump speaks at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J., on his way returning back to the White House, Sunday, July 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is expected to drop his bid to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, according to a House Republicans aide. Trump instead will pursue other avenues for collecting citizenship information after the Supreme Court blocked his census efforts, according to current and former administration officials familiar with the plans.

Trump tweeted Thursday morning that he would be holding a news conference on the subject. A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to preview the plans, said the president would be announcing new executive action as part of the effort but did not elaborate. Officials were still scrambling to finalize language in the hours after Trump’s tweet.

The American Community Survey, which polls 3.5 million U.S. households every year, already includes questions about respondents’ citizenship, so it is unclear what Trump has in mind.

But Trump appeared to preview his remarks at a White House social media summit, where he complained about being told: ”‘Sir, you can’t ask that question … because the courts said you can’t.’”

Describing the situation as “the craziest thing,” he went on to contend that surveyors can ask residents how many toilets they have and, “What’s their roof made of? The only thing we can’t ask is, ‘Are you a citizen of the United States?’”

“I think we have a solution that will be very good for a lot of people,” he added.

Trump had said last week that he was “very seriously” considering an executive order to try to force the citizenship question’s inclusion, despite the fact that the government has already begun the lengthy and expensive process of printing the census questionnaire without it.

But any action to get past the Supreme Court ruling would have been likely to draw an immediate legal challenge.

The congressional aide, as well as the current and former administration officials all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s thinking in advance of a formal announcement.

The Census Bureau had stressed repeatedly that it could produce better citizenship data without adding the question to the decennial census, which had not been done since 1950.

The bureau recommended combining information from the annual American Community Survey with records held by other federal agencies that already include citizenship records.

“This would result in higher quality data produced at lower cost,” deputy Census Bureau director Ron Jarmin wrote in a December 2017 email to a Justice Department official.

But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, ultimately rejected that approach and ordered the citizenship question be added to the census.

Critics had warned that including the citizenship question on the census would discourage participation, not only by those living in the country illegally but also by citizens who fear that participating will expose noncitizen family members to repercussions.

Keeping the prospect of adding the question alive could in itself scare some away from participating, while showing Trump’s base that he is fighting for the issue.

Trump’s 2016 campaign was animated by his pledge to crack down on illegal immigration, and he has tied the citizenship question to that issue, insisting the U.S. must know who is living here.

An executive order, by itself, would not have overridden court rulings blocking the question, though it could have given administration lawyers a new basis on which to try to convince federal courts the question passes muster.

Trump’s administration has faced numerous roadblocks to adding the question, beginning with the ruling by the Supreme Court temporarily barring its inclusion on the grounds that the government’s justification was insufficient. A federal judge on Wednesday also rejected the Justice Department’s plan to replace the legal team fighting for inclusion, a day after another federal judge in Manhattan issued a similar ruling, saying the government can’t replace nine lawyers so late in the dispute without satisfactorily explaining why.

Refusing to concede, Trump had insisted his administration push forward, suggesting last week that officials might be able to add an addendum to the questionnaire with the question after it’s already printed. He has also toyed with the idea of halting the constitutionally mandated survey while the legal fight ensues.

Trump has offered several explanations for why he believes the question is necessary to include in the once-a-decade population count that determines the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives for the next 10 years and the distribution of some $675 billion in federal spending.

“You need it for Congress, for districting. You need it for appropriations. Where are the funds going? How many people are there? Are they citizens? Are they not citizens? You need it for many reasons,” he told reporters last week, despite the fact that congressional districts are based on total population, regardless of residents’ national origin or immigration status.

If immigrants are undercounted, Democrats fear that would pull money and political power away from Democratic-led cities where immigrants tend to cluster, and shift it to whiter, rural areas where Republicans do well.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Thursday called Trump’s efforts “outrageous” and accused him of pushing the question “to intimidate minorities, particularly Latinos, from answering the census so that it undercounts those communities and Republicans can redraw congressional districts to their advantage.”

“He thinks he can just issue executive orders and go around the Congress, go around established law and try to bully the courts,” Schumer said from the Senate floor. He predicted the effort would be thwarted by the courts.

House Democrats next week will vote on holding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Ross in contempt for their failure to comply with congressional subpoenas investigating the issue.

Alarmed by last week’s change of course by the administration, the plaintiffs in the New York census citizenship case already have asked U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman to permanently block the administration from adding the question to the 2020 census. Furman has set a July 23 hearing on the request.

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Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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