Trump Claim on Citizenship Question Contradicted in N.Y. Trial

(Bloomberg) -- Dozens of states and cities that sued to block the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census got help from an unlikely source on the first day of trial: the U.S. government.

Just four days ago, the U.S. Census Bureau presented findings at an annual meeting that appear to undermine the government’s claim in court that adding the question -- “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” -- to the once-a-decade survey won’t erode participation by Hispanics and noncitizens as plaintiffs allege, according to evidence displayed on Monday in federal court in Manhattan.

The 71-page document, prepared for one of the Census Bureau’s national advisory committees, shows "key findings" from a survey of thousands of households and dozens of focus groups this spring, including a finding that adding a citizenship question “may be a major barrier” to the census.

The survey, intended to help prepare the agency for the 2020 census, showed that many participants were concerned about how citizenship data could be used by the government, with some respondents saying they feared it would be used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation sweeps. While the Census bureau does collect identifying information including names and addresses of respondents, it’s not authorized to share the data with ICE.

Hispanics who participated in the focus group "expressed intense fear that information will be shared with other government agencies to help them find undocumented immigrants," according to the document, which was prepared for the Census Bureau by Young & Rubicam. "Participants worried that their participation in the census could harm them personally or others in their communities/households they care about."

"I think it confirms what we have said we will prove in this case: that it will be a major problem," New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who’s leading the coalition of plaintiffs, said during a break in the trial on Monday.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, had said in March there was "limited empirical evidence" that the question would scare off participants, even though at that time the Census Bureau was preparing to start its survey the following month.

The plaintiffs claim the citizenship question, paired with President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, is intended to scare immigrants and noncitizens away from the census and thus dilute their political power, given that census data are used to apportion members of Congress and divvy up Electoral College votes, as well as direct billions of dollars in federal funds to states and localities. The trial, which started the day before a momentous midterm election, could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade.

The government on Monday sought to block the survey findings from being presented as evidence, though that request was denied by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, who is conducting the trial without a jury. The U.S. has argued that adding the question will improve the accuracy of the census and allow the government to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

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