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DOJ Still Looking To Add Census Citizenship Question


The 2020 census form has gone to the presses. The form does not have a question asking people whether they are U.S. citizens. The Trump administration wanted that question on the form, but the Supreme Court said no for now. But then yesterday, an official at the Justice Department said they have been told to keep looking for a way to ask this question anyway.

It appears this was prompted in part by a tweet from President Trump suggesting that he has not really given up on this. Hansi Lo Wang has been covering the census extensively. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: OK. So this is a developing story that just keeps developing in surprising ways. Can you explain what's happening now with the Department of Justice?

WANG: This is all over this question that asks, is this person a citizen of the United States? The Department of Justice earlier this week told us that the printing has started without this question for the 2020 census forms. But then, the next day, President Trump tweeted that he essentially has - any reports that the Commerce Department has given up on asking for this question, that's - those are not true, he said.

And so - and that is a tweet that essentially spurred a flurry of court activity yesterday - different court hearings that - was revealed a Justice Department official said that they are still looking now for a reason to ask for a citizenship question.

KING: OK, so they had their chance before the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court said, no, you may not ask this question. What was the Supreme Court's reasoning?

WANG: The Supreme Court said, for now, you're not allowed to ask this question because a majority of the court found that the administration's justification for the question, that it would help better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act, better protect the voting rights of racial minorities, that that reasoning, quote, "seems to have been contrived."

And so the justice - and so the Supreme Court, rather, said that, you know, the Commerce Department, the Commerce secretary who oversees the Census Bureau, does have the authority to add this question. But there needs to be a legitimate reason, and that was not a legitimate reason here.

KING: And is it clear what the Justice Department intends to do to come up with a legitimate reason?

WANG: Well, the Justice Department has said in a letter to a federal judge in New York, who is also wondering what is happening here - said that they are instructed to try to look for another way to ask for the citizenship question and get it onto the 2020 census forms. And that would require figuring out a new justification for this question.

And the big question then is, once the Trump administration announces it has a new justification for this question, would it pass the test of the courts? Will the courts now believe that that is a reasonable and also a legal way to get this question on the census?

KING: OK. So what happens next? There isn't a new deadline now, right?

WANG: The deadline now is Friday 2 p.m. Eastern. A federal judge in Maryland - this is a very complicated legal battle. A judge in Maryland says the Justice Department has to inform his court what happens going forward. Does the Trump administration intend to try to make another case for a citizenship question, because it really hinges then on, if there are plans to do that, a federal judge in Maryland is ready to reopen and reconsider already-filed allegations against this question, that the decision to add this question was intended to discriminate against immigrant communities of color and that there was a conspiracy amongst Trump administration officials.

KING: And in the meantime, we should keep reminding people, like, the sand is running through the hourglass here, right? It's a 2020 census.

WANG: It is coming. It officially starts in January. Most people may not be thinking about it, but we are in the last stages of preparations. And so getting the forms printed, finalizing what questions are on the form is very important to make sure a count happens on time. And this is a count of every person living in the country.

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covering the census, thinking about the census. Thanks, Hansi.

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

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.