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Experts Say a Citizenship Question Would Be Bad for the Census. The Supreme Court Might Allow It Anyway.

As the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday over the Trump administration's proposed citizenship question on the 2020 Census, the five conservative justices seemed aligned: In their comments, they sounded ready to allow the question.

In an effort led by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, the Trump administration has proposed that this question, which would ask respondents whether or not they (or people in their household) are United States citizens, be added to the 2020 Census. Since the question was first proposed, a remarkable collection of demographers, statisticians, social scientists, researchers, legal experts, civil rights advocates, and current and former government officials have raised the alarm that the question could corrupt the accuracy of the census. (The parties opposed include five former Census Bureau directors, who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents.)

A bevy of studies has shown that asking the citizenship question would discourage census participation among immigrant—and, in particular, Latinx—populations, which would lead to those communities being undercounted. That undercounting could have serious consequences: The census determines congressional representation, public funding, and a variety of other policies that have a significant impact on individuals' lives.

Five lawsuits have been filed in different states opposing the addition of the question, and three federal judges in New York, California, and Maryland have issued rulings that block the question. The judges ruled that Ross violated administrative procedures for determining new questions. (Though Ross claims he chose to add the question to help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act, multiple courts have found that Ross wanted to add the question regardless, and then pressured the Department of Justice to find a justification for it.)

Two of the judges—in Maryland and California—also found that the question was unconstitutional because it interfered with the government's mandate to produce an accurate count.

Multiple immigrant and civil rights groups oppose the question because of concerns that it would discriminate against Latinxs, mixed citizenship households, and other historically marginalized groups.

When the federal judge in New York decided on one of the lawsuits (United States Department of Commerce v. New York, the case now before the Supreme Court), I wrote for Pacific Standard about how the plaintiffs—a collection of advocacy groups—celebrated the decision. At that time, Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement:

The court's ruling reaffirms what we have long known—that Secretary Ross' decision to add a citizenship question was a blatant and illegal attempt to undercount immigrant communities. ... The inevitable result would have been—and the administration's clear intent was—to strip federal resources and political representation from those needing it most.