California sues Trump administration for 'reckless' decision to add census citizenship question

Key Points
  • California sues the federal government over its decision to add a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.
  • Xavier Becerra, California's attorney general, says Tuesday the citizenship question was "another reckless decision" by the Trump administration.
  • The suit says the decision "will directly impede" efforts to obtain an accurate population count.
  • The state is concerned a lower population could ultimately jeopardize billions in federal funding as well as a congressional seat.
Xavier Becerra
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

California's attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census, claiming the action is unlawful and "will directly impede" efforts to obtain an accurate population count.

An undercount for California in the upcoming census could result in the nation's most populous state losing a congressional seat and might jeopardize billions of dollars in federal funding for health care, transportation and education, state officials said.

Xavier Becerra, California's attorney general, said in a press conference Tuesday the action was "another reckless decision" by the Trump administration and "threatens not just immigrant families in our state but all of us in the state of California."

The Commerce Department announced late Monday it would reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census to help enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The last time the citizenship question was asked on the Census was in 1950. The decision followed a request by the U.S. Department of Justice, which seeks "to provide census block level citizenship voting age population, or CVAP, data that is not currently available from government surveys," Commerce said in a statement.

"After a thorough review of the legal, program, and policy considerations, as well as numerous discussions with Census Bureau leadership, members of Congress, and interested stakeholders, Secretary [Wilbur] Ross has determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census questionnaire is necessary to provide complete and accurate census block level data," Commerce said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that the Census Bureau has asked the citizenship question on its American Community Survey since 1965, with the exception of 2010. But it said the ACS "is not the most appropriate data to use as a basis for redistricting. The Justice Department looks forward to defending the reinstatement of the citizenship question, which will allow the department to protect the right to vote and ensure free and fair elections for all Americans."

A Commerce official who declined to be named told CNBC that the department won't comment on specifics of the California lawsuit but insisted the state's case lacks merit. "We look forward to prevailing in court and continuing to work with the Census Bureau to conduct a complete and accurate 2020 census," the official said.

What the lawsuit argues

The California lawsuit — filed against the Commerce Department, Secretary Wilbur Ross, the U.S. Census Bureau and its acting head Ron Jarmin — maintained that asking the citizenship question isn't just unconstitutional but a violation of federal laws such as the Administrative Procedure Act prohibiting "arbitrary and capricious" agency actions. The state's complaint was filed just hours after Commerce announced the citizenship question would be added to the upcoming census.

"They do have a case — it is based on the argument that adding this question so late in the day will basically destroy the usability of the census," said Nate Persily, a professor of law at Stanford Law school. He has written about some key cases and issues involving the census.

The 30-page lawsuit by California continues the state's ongoing legal fights against the Trump administration on several fronts, from immigration and health care to the environment. For one, the Trump administration is suing California over its so-called sanctuary state law.

According to Becerra, the U.S. Constitution requires an actual count of the population in the decennial census, regardless of citizenship status. Including a question about citizenship could intimidate or discourage people and result in an inaccurate census that might "translate into several million people not being counted," he said.

"This latest move by the Trump administration to threaten California is not just a bad idea, it's against the law," Becerra told reporters. "We're going to defend every one of our rights to make sure that every one of our people who has worked hard to make California the sixth-largest economy in the world is counted."

Added Becerra: "Given the way this administration has attacked immigrants, you can understand why immigrant families would be afraid to fill out the census questionnaire."

Also, Becerra said the federal government relied on census data during World War II to identify Japanese-American families for internment camps.

Pushing back against the president

In its lawsuit, California noted that it "has more foreign-born residents (over 10 million) and non-citizens (over 5 million) than any other state." It also cited a study that shows the state "has the highest number of U.S.-born citizens who live with at least one undocumented family member."

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who also participated in the press conference Tuesday, said the Trump administration's decision to add the citizenship question to the census "rolls back the clock on civil rights and voting rights in America. Sadly, it's just the latest effort to sabotage the already underfunded and understaffed and leaderless census."

Padilla added, "Questioning the citizenship status of every person in America is unfortunately just a continuation of the president's blatant agenda to fan the flames of anti-immigrant hostility in our nation."

At the same time, a coalition of 19 state attorneys general, led by New York's Eric Schneiderman, is opposing the citizenship question on the 2020 Census and plans to file a separate lawsuit.

The Census Bureau is expected at the end of the month to formally submit its plans for the 2020 Census to Congress.

Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., announced she will introduce legislation to block the citizenship question from the upcoming census.

"The decision to add this question without any testing at this late stage is deeply troubling and reckless," she said in a statement.