Trump administration wants to block Texas groups from census citizenship fight

U.S. Justice Department attorneys say the relief sought in a lawsuit targeting the addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire "is as extraordinary as it is unprecedented."

As multiple court fights over the addition of a citizenship question to the once-a-decade census heat up, the Trump administration is working to keep several Texas groups representing Latino and Asian residents on the sidelines.

In a late Friday filing, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice asked a Maryland-based federal judge to toss a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus — among other Texas-based organizations — that’s meant to block the controversial question from appearing on the census questionnaire in 2020.

Those groups allege that the addition of the citizenship question is unconstitutional because it will lead to a disproportionate undercount of Latino and Asian residents, non-citizens and their family members. Justice Department lawyers responded by challenging the plaintiffs’ standing to dispute the federal government’s decision to ask about citizenship status, and they argued it was unlikely the plaintiffs would be able to prove that the question would be harmful to them.

"The relief sought in this suit — an order barring the Secretary of Commerce from collecting demographic information through the decennial census — is as extraordinary as it is unprecedented," the Justice Department attorneys wrote in the filing.

The lawsuit in question against the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce is just one of several filed across the country in the months since Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced in March that the bureau would tack the citizenship question onto the 2020 questionnaire — a move that rankled local officials, demographers and Democratic lawmakers who worry that the question will depress response rates among immigrants and their families given the current political climate.

Such an undercount would be incredibly detrimental to a state like Texas because it could endanger billions of dollars in social services dollars and transportation project funding that are tied to the census. It could also jeopardize Texans’ representation in the U.S. House. Census counts are used to determine how many representatives Texas is entitled to elect to Congress and are used to redraw corresponding political boundaries.

Texas has long been considered a hard-to-count state because of the millions of residents who fall into the categories of people — immigrants, college students, children younger than 5 years old — who pose the biggest challenges for the headcount.

And demographers and advocates fear that the citizenship question could significantly discourage responses from immigrants — even those authorized to be in the country — and their families, which could translate to a massive undercount. Texas is home to almost 5 million immigrants — the majority of whom are not U.S. citizens, according to Census estimates. And more than 1 million Texans who are U.S. citizens live with at least one family member who is undocumented.

Throughout the almost 100 pages of legal briefs filed with the court on Friday, attorneys for the Trump administration sought to undermine those undercount concerns, repeatedly describing them as "too attenuated and speculative" to provide those challenging the inclusion of the question with firm legal standing.

A drop in responses and the alleged potential fallout "would be not be fairly traceable to the Secretary’s decision but would be attributable instead to the independent decisions of individuals who disregard their legal duty to respond to the census," they wrote.

The Trump administration hasn’t had much success in fending of legal challenges to the citizenship question. As of this week, judges have greenlighted five federal lawsuits despite the administration’s objections.

Three Texas border counties — El Paso, Hidalgo and Cameron — are part of a coalition of more than 30 states, cities and counties that are suing to block the inclusion of the citizenship question in a New York federal court.

Also among those legal challenges is a separate lawsuit filed in Maryland involving several individual residents from Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. This week, U.S. District Judge George Hazel rejected the Trump administration’s attempt to dismiss that lawsuit and ruled the case could move forward in court.

The arguments in those lawsuits largely echo those put forth by the Texas-based groups and the more than a dozen other plaintiffs — including legislative Latino caucuses out of Arizona, Maryland and California — who joined them in arguing that the Trump administration’s addition of the citizenship question is “arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

They specifically allege that the inclusion of the citizenship question violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because it is “motivated by racial animus” toward Latinos, Asians, non-citizens and immigrants, and they allege that it will deprive Latino and Asian residents of equal representation. They also argue that the court should act to prevent the undercount that would result from the addition of the question, which would amount to a violation of the Enumerations and Apportionment Clauses.

In announcing the addition of the question back in March, the secretary of commerce indicated the citizenship-related data was necessary for “more effective enforcement” of the federal Voting Rights Act, and he testified in Congress that the DOJ had initiated the request to include the question for those purposes back in December.

But documents released as part of separate litigation over the question showed that Ross actually considered the addition of the question months before the DOJ’s request was received.

In its Friday response, the Trump administration put forth several of the same arguments it presented in the Maryland suit Hazel already ruled could move forward and even offered a rebuttal to what DOJ lawyers described as the judge's "misguided" analysis.

It's unclear when the judge will rule on the Trump administration's request to dismiss the case.