(Reuters) – Several U.S. states and civil rights groups promised on Tuesday to stop the federal government from asking people whether they are citizens in the 2020 Census, arguing it could discourage immigrants from participating and skew the makeup of Congress.
The U.S. Commerce Department, which runs the Census Bureau, announced on Monday that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had decided to include the citizenship question. It said he had responded to a Justice Department request based on a desire for better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minorities’ voting rights.
Ross had decided that “obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts,” the Commerce Department said in a statement.
Opponents said they worried the addition of the question was intentionally designed to undercount immigrants, leaving them more marginalized by potentially reducing their representation in Congress and federal funding for local jurisdictions, which is determined by population.
“I can only see one purpose for why this question is being added: It is a scare tactic to try to scare Latinos and others from participating in the 2020 census,” Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, told reporters.
Others said it will disrupt years of planning and lack the rigorous testing that Census questions typically undergo to ensure an accurate count.
The census, which is mandated under the U.S. Constitution and takes place every 10 years, counts every person in the United States. It is used to determine the allocation to states of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds to local communities. The citizenship question has not been asked since 1950.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement he would lead a multistate lawsuit to block the decision. A spokeswoman for his office said the suit would be filed once the Commerce Department submits its report to Congress, which is due Saturday, and the full list of cities and states joining the suit would then be revealed.
Separately, the State of California, which has a large immigrant population, filed a lawsuit early Tuesday in federal court against the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra asked the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California to issue a preliminary injunction and rule that the move violates the Constitution by interfering with the obligation to conduct a full count of the U.S. population.
Congress can intervene to pass legislation on the questionnaire, but President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans control both the Senate and House and are seen as unlikely to overturn a decision by his administration.
The administration argued that its decision to include the citizenship question was aimed at protecting minority rights.
Ross said in a memo that the Voting Rights Act requires a tally of citizens of voting age to protect minorities against discrimination, and that getting this information would make the census more complete. Non-citizens do not have the right to vote in federal and state elections. bit.ly/2pIZlXr
The announcement on the census question came as Trump seeks to keep his campaign promise to build a border wall between Mexico and the United States and to crack down on illegal immigration.
Opponents of the citizenship question say it could further discourage immigrants from participating in the count, especially when they are already fearful of how information could be used against them.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry