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Trump administration’s attempt to add citizenship question to 2020 Census is unlawful, federal judge rules

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Philadelphia are among the states, cities, and counties that sued the Trump administration to challenge the citizenship question, which they fear will deter residents from answering and depress their population counts.

Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a July file photo. A judge rejected his defense of a 2020 Census question regarding citizenship.
Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a July file photo. A judge rejected his defense of a 2020 Census question regarding citizenship.Read moreManuel Balce Ceneta / AP

A question that the Trump administration wants to add to the 2020 census asking for residents' citizenship status is unlawful, a federal judge in New York ruled Tuesday.

In adding the question, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, overstepped his authority, did not adequately justify his reasoning, and violated federal law, U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman wrote in his order. Furman blocked the question from the 2020 census.

“In a startling number of ways, Secretary Ross’s explanations for his decision were unsupported by, or even counter to, the evidence before the agency,” the judge wrote. "For instance, he sought to justify his decision on the ground that ‘no one provided evidence that reinstating a citizenship question on the decennial census would materially decrease response rates.’ But that assertion is simply untrue.”

The Census Bureau itself calculated last year that adding a citizenship question was likely to lead to a decrease in questionnaire responses in noncitizen households.

Over objections from the Census Bureau about depressed counts and increased costs, the Trump administration said in March it wanted to add the question to collect better citizenship data for enforcement.

Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Philadelphia are among the 18 states, and 15 cities and counties, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, that sued the administration in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. They argued that the question would deter immigrants from answering census questionnaires, leading to an undercount of the states' populations.

The allocation of hundreds of billions of federal dollars, the number of seats each state receives in the U.S. House, and the boundaries of voting districts are all at stake in the 2020 census. Pennsylvania receives about $2,100 in federal funds per person and New Jersey about $1,960, according to a 2017 report by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.

More than 260,000 noncitizens live in the eight-county region in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including roughly 106,000 in Philadelphia, according to census estimates.

Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday called the judge’s ruling “a huge victory for Philadelphia and other cities across our nation.”

In a statement, Kenney said a citizenship question “would have politicized an essential element of our democracy.”

Because the Census Act directs the government to use information in administrative records when possible instead of asking direct questions in a census, the secretary violated federal law, the judge ruled. The secretary showed a preference for survey answers in a census "when the data gained from available administrative records would have been adequate — indeed, better,” the judge wrote.

He also violated federal law when he failed to tell Congress in a report about the 2020 census that he wanted to add the citizenship question, according to Furman.

The judge heard testimony in the case last month. Local governments have filed six other lawsuits challenging the citizenship question. The issue is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court this year.