WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Thursday gave the green light to a lawsuit seeking to block the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, saying plaintiffs had made a plausible case that the move was a deliberate attempt by the White House to discriminate against immigrants.
The ruling, by United States District Judge Jesse M. Furman in Manhattan, set the stage for a trial this fall that is expected to delve into how and why the Trump administration decided in March to add a question to the next census about citizenship status.
The plaintiffs, which include state and local governments and advocacy groups, claim that asking residents to verify their citizenship would “fatally undermine” the accuracy of the head count because both legal and undocumented immigrants would refuse to fill out the form.
A reduced count in areas with large immigrant populations could reduce Democratic representation when new state and congressional districts are drawn in 2021, and skew the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grants and other spending.
Judge Furman rejected a claim that Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who made the decision to add the question to the census form, lacked the authority to do so. But the judge said the circumstances surrounding Mr. Ross’s actions, including his shifting explanation of what he did and why, raised questions about his true intent.
Mr. Ross originally said he acted at the request of the Justice Department, which he said needed better citizenship data to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But he later admitted — and Commerce Department documents confirmed — that he had discussed the citizenship question with administration officials from almost the beginning of his tenure in the department, and that he or his aides had asked the Justice Department to request that the question be added.
That alone does not prove that adding the question was intended to discriminate against immigrants, Judge Furman stated, but the sequence of events does raise suspicions.
Judge Furman added that those suspicions were bolstered by President Trump’s “racially charged” statements singling out immigrant minorities. Among them, he wrote, were Mr. Trump’s reference in January to “these people from shithole countries” who come to the United States; his claim in February that some immigrants “turn out to be horrendous” and are not “the best people;” and his statement in May that certain people trying to enter the United States “aren’t people, these are animals.”
While none of those statements refer directly to the citizenship question, the judge wrote, indications that Mr. Trump may have been personally involved in the deliberations over the question “help to nudge” the plaintiffs’ claim of intentional discrimination “across the line from conceivable to plausible.”
Two days after Mr. Ross announced the decision to add the citizenship question, Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign declared in an email to supporters that “President Trump has officially mandated that the 2020 United States census ask people living in America whether or not they are citizens.”
Commerce Department documents disclosed in the lawsuit also show that Mr. Trump’s chief strategist at the time, Stephen K. Bannon, was in contact with Mr. Ross on census issues in early 2017 and directed an advocate of the citizenship question to speak with him.
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