Latinx Advocacy Groups Sue To Block Citizenship Data Release By Trump Officials

Sep 13, 2019
Originally published on September 13, 2019 7:54 pm

Updated at 5:58 p.m. ET

Latinx community groups based in Texas and Arizona are suing to block the Trump administration from collecting government records for the production of data concerning the U.S. citizenship status of every person living in the country.

The lawsuit marks the first legal challenge in response to Trump's July executive order about citizenship data, extending a legal fight that began with the administration's push for the now-blocked citizenship question.

A major GOP strategist had concluded that information — which the Census Bureau has been directed to produce by using citizenship records from other federal agencies and state governments — could be used by state redistricting officials after the 2020 census to redraw voting districts that are "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."

In a court filing obtained Friday by NPR, attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC outline allegations that are similar to their earlier lawsuit against the addition of the citizenship question.

They argue that the Trump administration's efforts are part of a conspiracy intended to prevent Latinx communities, noncitizens and other immigrants from receiving fair representation when state and local voting lines are redrawn after the 2020 census.

The challengers also allege that the administration is violating the Administrative Procedure Act in trying to carry out Trump's executive order. Thomas Saenz, MALDEF's president and general counsel, describes the efforts as a way of saving face for the president after the Supreme Court ruled to keep the citizenship question off the 2020 census forms.

"We know that effectively no process was followed," Saenz tells NPR. "It was an announcement made in reaction to the president having to abandon his effort to include a citizenship question."

The Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuit, according to DOJ spokesperson Kelly Laco.

NPR has also reached out to the Census Bureau and Commerce Department — which oversees the bureau — for comment.

The complaint was filed with the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Md., where earlier this year MALDEF and other groups successfully challenged the Trump administration's attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Compiling the records of federal agencies to create citizenship data was originally proposed by Census Bureau researchers as an alternative to the administration's request in late 2017 for a census citizenship question. Including the question, the bureau's chief scientist warned, could jeopardize the accuracy of census information, which is used to determine the distribution of congressional seats, Electoral College votes and federal funding among the states.

But Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross overruled the recommendations of the researchers and pushed to add the citizenship question to forms for the upcoming national head count. In his memo announcing the question's addition in March 2018, Ross directed the bureau to begin gathering citizenship records from other federal agencies in order to "match" them with responses to the question "to provide more comprehensive information for the population."

Ultimately, however, three federal judges, including one in Maryland, blocked the question in part because they found that Ross violated a legal requirement to rely on existing government records for demographic information before resorting to adding a census question.

The executive order makes no mention of the Voting Rights Act — the administration's original stated reason for why it wants citizenship data that are more detailed than the estimates the government has used to enforce the civil rights-era law since it was first enacted in 1965.

Instead, the order said the information could be used for understanding "the effects of immigration" on the U.S., evaluating the "potential effects of proposals to alter the eligibility rules for public benefits," producing a "more reliable" count of unauthorized immigrants and for allowing states to redraw voting districts based on the number of eligible voters in an area rather than all residents.

"I understand that some State officials are interested in such data for districting purposes," Trump said in the order. "This order will assist the Department in securing the most accurate and complete citizenship data so that it can respond to such requests from the States."

This week, the Census Bureau announced that not a single state redistricting official asked for citizenship information to be included in the redistricting data the bureau plans to release after the 2020 census.

The agency, however, said that it is still working to put out citizenship data for state redistricting in 2021.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today the Trump administration is facing a new lawsuit over its efforts to compile citizenship information. This legal challenge comes after federal courts blocked a question about citizenship from being added to the 2020 census. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Back in July, after more than a week of confusion over whether the Trump administration would keep fighting in the courts for a citizenship question, President Trump backed down and announced an executive order.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and noncitizens in our country.

THOMAS SAENZ: It is clearly used as a substitute for the citizenship question and has many of the same legal flaws that prevented the citizenship question from being added to census 2020.

WANG: Thomas Saenz is the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is helping to represent Latinx community groups in a federal lawsuit filed in Maryland. They're trying to block the Census Bureau from gathering government records to produce data about whether every person living in the country is a U.S. citizen, all at the direction of the Commerce Department and the executive order Trump officials rushed to release in July.

SAENZ: There was no process because it was effectively simply a public relations, if you will, face-saving motivation for the release on that day.

WANG: The citizenship data the Census Bureau's trying to put together right now could have major implications on the balance of political power over the next decade. When it comes to redrawing political maps in 2021, state and local governments could use this data when they begin reforming voting districts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter-eligible population.

WANG: This week, however, the Census Bureau announced that not a single state redistricting official has asked the bureau for that data, and it isn't clear whether that way of redistricting is legal or not.

A major GOP strategist who died last year, Thomas Hofeller, concluded that way of redistricting would politically benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic white people. Thomas Saenz says Hofeller's ideas helped drive the Trump administration's push for citizenship data.

SAENZ: The true rationale is to intimidate and prevent the Latino and Asian American communities from receiving their fair representation in the redistricting process in 2021 and beyond.

WANG: A spokesperson for the Justice Department, which represents the administration, declined to comment.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.