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Latest On Census Lawsuits In Court


Today a judge gave a legal victory to critics of the new citizenship question that the Trump administration added to the 2020 census. The court ordered the administration to release more internal documents about how it decided to add the question. More than two dozen states and cities are suing to get it removed. They fear the question will harm the accuracy of the numbers that are used to reapportion seats in Congress and distribute federal funds. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang was at the courthouse and joins us now. Hi, Hansi.


SHAPIRO: Remind us what's at stake here.

WANG: Well, the Trump administration says the Voting Rights Act is what's driving this push for a citizenship question on their behalf. They say the Justice Department needs a better count of citizens in order to enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act which has provisions against racial discrimination. But the fact is the Census Bureau has not asked all U.S. households about citizenship status since 1950.

And critics of this question, including more than the two dozen states and cities part of this largest lawsuit in Manhattan - they say that this current political climate, this increase immigration enforcement under the Trump administration really will discourage a lot of noncitizens, including their citizen relatives, from participating in the headcount in 2020. It's a constitutional requirement, and an inaccurate count of every person living in the country has a direct impact on how many seats in Congress each state gets, how legislative districts are drawn and how an estimated $800 billion a year in federal funds are distributed.

SHAPIRO: So tell us more about what exactly the judge decided today.

WANG: Well, the Justice Department has been requesting the judge to dismiss this case. The judge did not make a ruling, although he did say that it's not likely that he will dismiss the case in Manhattan in its entirety. And then he ruled on this motion to force the government - the federal - the Trump administration release more documents from the Commerce Department and the Justice Department, and he approved that motion.

Just for full disclosure, I've filed for a Freedom of Information Act request - excuse me - on behalf of NPR for those documents as well. And the Commerce Department has already released more than 3,000 pages. And the judge cited one of those memos today and said that in that memo released by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, he revealed that he actually asked the Justice Department staff if they would submit a request for a citizenship question. So the judge says based on that new memo, it appears that this question for a citizenship question did not originate from the Justice Department, and that's enough to grant this request to see more documents, to see exactly what went into this decision.

And, you know, outside the courthouse, there was a lot of cheering from critics of this question. Folks have been very skeptical of the Trump administration's reasoning that the Voting Rights Act is what's driving this. And one of those critics is Elizabeth OuYang of the New York Immigration Coalition. She's leading this New York Counts 2020 campaign. Let's listen to what she said.


ELIZABETH OUYANG: The public must see the elephant in this courtroom - the intention to make America white again. We know the hard-fought and ongoing struggle for diversity and inclusion in this country, and we will not go back.

WANG: You know, what OuYang is referring to is that fears that a lot of, you know, noncitizens are people of color and that if they're scared from participating from the census, that they won't be included in these really important numbers.

SHAPIRO: The 2020 census may be two years off, but the questionnaire needs to be finalized soon. Is this going to be resolved in time?

WANG: Well, the judge said that he hopes this case moves quickly. He set a tentative trial date in New York City on Halloween, although he emphasized that he does not expect to be the final word on whatever he decides. He's expecting appeals. And remember; there are five other lawsuits currently against this question. Another thing to keep in mind is the midterm elections in November. Democrats - if they win back the House, some lawmakers say they might propose bills to try to remove this question before 2020 starts.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covering the census for us, and - appreciate your coverage of this case, which I know you will keep covering. Thanks for joining us.

WANG: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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