The Census Bureau will not include a question about citizenship in the printed questionnaire for the 2020 census, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross confirmed Tuesday.
The decision represents a major defeat for the Trump administration five days after the Supreme Court refused to allow the question to be added without further explanation from Census officials. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal wing last week in a surprising decision that sent the case back lower courts for further review.
It was an instance of the Trump administration suffering serious consequences from another branch of government for being less than truthful. Roberts said in his decision that the Commerce Department’s explanation for including the question was "incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decision-making process." By delaying resolution of the matter, the high court apparently forced the Census Bureau, which faced a tight deadline, to proceed without the citizenship question.
But it remained uncertain whether the citizenship question might resurface in a digital 2020 questionnaire to be prepared at a later date. Sarah Brannon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented plaintiffs in a related New York case, said it would likely not. "It is my understanding," she said, "that the paper and digital form must be the same."
In a statement about the administration’s decision to publish the questionnaire without the citizenship question, Ross said, “I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. … My focus, and that of the bureau and the entire department, is to conduct a complete and accurate census.”
The Justice Department said during litigation that the Census Bureau faced a June 30 deadline to finalize printed questionnaires. One Census official later suggested the process could be delayed until the end of October, but that such a move would require "exceptional effort and additional resources."
The decision to proceed with printing questionnaires may signal a detente in the lengthy legal and political battle over adding the question to the 2020 count.
The stakes were particularly high for states with high immigrant populations, like California, where officials warned for months that a citizenship question would fan fears of a government crackdown and suppress response rates. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued to block the question’s inclusion, arguing his state would forfeit deserved federal funds.
In a triumphant press conference Tuesday, Becerra said that the decision to nix the question would ensure California gets its share of federal dollars to pay for schools, road repairs and disaster response.
“They made a concession to the truth and quite honestly to the rule of law," Becerra said, adding that "now the census will be free of the contrived attempt to silence so many people."
Following last week’s Supreme Court’s ruling, President Donald Trump thrust the process into uncertainty when he threatened to delay the census.
"Seems totally ridiculous that our government, and indeed Country, cannot ask a basic question of Citizenship in a very expensive, detailed and important Census," Trump tweeted Thursday. “I have asked the lawyers if they can delay the Census, no matter how long,“ he wrote, “until the United States Supreme Court is given additional information from which it can make a final and decisive decision on this very critical matter.“
On Monday, Trump again warned that he might delay the census, saying that the U.S. needed to know “if somebody is a citizen as opposed to an illegal.” (The citizenship question — even if it had been permitted on the census — would not have asked about legal immigration status.)
But the administration backed down Tuesday. News that the questionnaire would be printed without a citizenship question circulated on Twitter after a DOJ attorney confirmed the plan in an email to plaintiffs‘ attorneys.
“We can confirm that the decision has been made to print the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire without a citizenship question, and that the printer has been instructed to begin the printing process,“ the DOJ attorney wrote.
New York led a coalition of states in one of several lawsuits that argued the question would depress responses in immigrant communities and in turn would lead to lower levels of federal funding and diminished political power.
The federal judge hearing that case, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, blocked the addition of the question in January, prompting the Trump administration to press the issue at the Supreme Court.
New York Attorney General Tish James said in a written statement Tuesday that “justice prevailed“ and that efforts would now shift to outreach to ensure all residents are counted.
Jeremy White contributed to this report.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine