Groups go to court over census citizenship question

By Denise Lavoie
Associated Press

Two dozen Latino and Asian-American organizations filed a federal lawsuit Thursday alleging that the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census is racially discriminatory and violates the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, claims the decision to add a question asking people if they are U.S. citizens is motivated by racial animus.

The groups say the question is intended to severely undercount minorities and immigrants to dilute their political representation and federal funding to their communities.

The lawsuit cites comments made by Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign and since his election, alleging that Trump and administration officials have expressed an intent “to target Latinos, Asian Americans and non-U.S. citizens.”

The examples cited include a July 2015 interview on Fox News’ “Media Buzz” in which Trump said the Mexican government was “forcing their most unwanted people into the United States.”

“They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.,” he said.

The Justice Department has said reinstating the citizenship question “will allow the department to protect the right to vote and ensure free and fair elections for all Americans.”

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in March that the census distributed to every U.S. household will include a citizenship question for the first time since 1950.

Ross said then that the question was needed in part to help the government enforce the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law that was intended to protect the political representation of minority groups. Ross said it will provide a more accurate tally of voting-eligible residents than is currently available from a smaller sampling survey that includes the citizenship question.

But critics say the question will drive down already low census response rates among immigrants, reduce their political representation and rob their communities of federal money.

Several other lawsuits have been filed challenging the citizenship question, including in New York and California, but this is the first believed to make a racial discrimination claim, said Thomas Saenz, MALDEF’s president and general counsel.

“We think there are good grounds for arguing and concluding that this was motivated specifically to target the Latino community and the Asian-American community and to reduce their counts,” Saenz said.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment. The U.S. Census Bureau, also named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.