Faced with a defeat in court and few viable options, Donald Trump on Thursday backed off his effort to place a question about citizenship on the next US census while announcing executive action by his administration to collect information on its own.
Trump ordered federal agencies to turn over records on the number of citizens, non-citizens and undocumented immigrants living in the US.
“The only people that are not proud to be citizens are the ones who are fighting us all the way about the word ‘citizen’,” Trump said in the Rose Garden.
Legal advocates have vowed to fight any executive action on the census in court.
The executive order, released on Thursday evening, directs government agencies, including the state department and several agencies in the department of homeland security, to provide records relating to citizenship to the commerce department. It also ordered the establishment of an interagency working group to improve access to administrative records.
The order argued the administration needs data on the number of citizens and non-citizens in the country to reevaluate immigration policy, implement and evaluate policy, including concerning benefits and generate a “more reliable” count of the number of people living in the country undocumented.
The president’s decisions came after he teased a news conference on the census and citizenship in a Thursday morning tweet, sparking numerous reports that he would unilaterally take executive action to include the citizenship question on 2020 census forms even after his administration was blocked by the supreme court.
But Trump’s controversial plan never saw the light of day. Within hours of putting the public on notice, administration officials said the president would defer to the court rulings on the census and instead instruct the commerce department to obtain citizenship data “through other means”.
Standing at the White House podium on a rainy Thursday evening in Washington, Trump began his remarks by letting out a sigh and posing the question he wished to ask of the nation’s population: “Are you a citizen of the United States of America?”
Casting blame on the “radical left”, Trump accused Democrats of turning a blind eye to illegal immigration and cast the fight as one over the very meaning of citizenship. “This is part of a broader leftwing effort to erode the rights of the American citizen and it is very unfair to our country,” Trump said.
Trump was joined by his attorney general, William Barr, who defended the president’s motivations. Barr said: “It is entirely reasonable to want to know how many citizens and non-citizens there are in the United States.”
Barr nonetheless acknowledged there were legal and practical limitations preventing the administration from including the citizenship question without jeopardizing the government’s ability to carry out the census.
Legal advocates had promised an immediate challenge to any attempted executive action on the matter by Trump.
“Trump’s attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper,” Dale Ho, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement following Trump’s remarks.
“It is clear he simply wanted to sow fear in immigrant communities and turbocharge Republican gerrymandering efforts by diluting the political influence of Latino communities,” added Ho, who argued the supreme court census case.
“Trump may claim victory today, but this is nothing short of a total, humiliating defeat for him and his administration.” Ho added that the ACLU would closely scrutinize Trump’s new effort to compile citizenship data and assess its legality.
In a ruling last month, the supreme court upheld the lower court decision against Trump, saying that the commerce department’s stated rationale for including the question – to protect voting rights – “seems to have been contrived” and was a “distraction”.
Trump acknowledged the truth of that assessment last week, when he told reporters at the White House that the proposed citizenship question was part of a longterm Republican blueprint to use the congressional redistricting process to tilt power in their favor. “Number one, you need it for Congress – you need it for Congress for districting,” Trump said. “You need it for appropriations – where are the funds going?”
Legal analysts warned that any attempt by Trump now to alter the census could open administration lawyers to charges of lying before the supreme court, because in an effort to accelerate the case they told the court five times that the census had to be finalized by 30 June – nearly two weeks ago.
“Separate from whether the president has the power to take this step,” tweeted the University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck, “the Solicitor General repeatedly represented to #SCOTUS that the #2020Census had to be finalized by 6/30. Any move to add the question at this point suggests those representations were false.”
Following the supreme court ruling in June, the matter appeared to be settled – until a Trump tweet.
Justice department lawyers affirmed to federal judges that the decision had been taken to print the census without the question, and the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, announced on 3 July that “the Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question”.
Then it came crashing down in 280 characters.
“The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!” Trump tweeted. “We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.”
But despite the Trump administration’s projections of confidence that they would ultimately prevail, options quickly ran scarce.
A federal court dealt a blow to the administration earlier this week by refusing a justice department request to change its legal team on the case. “Defendants provide no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons’, for the substitution of counsel,” wrote the judge in a blistering denial.
Even as he abandoned his quest to modify the census, Trump insisted on Thursday the fight was not yet over.
“I’m here to say we are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population,” he said.