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N.Y. Court Hearing To Examine Motives Behind Census' Citizenship Question


Do newly discovered documents reveal the true motive behind a change to the U.S. census? The Trump administration wants this change to the 2020 census, which is coming right up. Census takers would ask if the person being counted is a U.S. citizen. Democrats and civil rights groups object, saying the question would cause immigrants to avoid being counted at all with huge consequences. The Trump administration denies any political motive, but documents in the hard drives of a dead Republican strategist tell a different story. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been covering this story. He's on the line.

Hi there, Hansi.


INSKEEP: So this citizenship question ended up being a matter of controversy. Why?

WANG: This is a kind of question that the Census Bureau has long known to be a very sensitive question. Census Bureau research suggests it is highly likely to scare households with non-citizens, and that could include some citizens from participating in the census. And so there've been multiple lawsuits filed. Three judges around the country have blocked the plans for - to add this question. And the New York judge's ruling has been appealed to the Supreme Court.

INSKEEP: I just want to underline this. So you have - I don't know - a neighborhood or even a whole state that has a large number of immigrants. Some of them aren't counted. And whether they are citizens or not, federal aid would go in a certain percentage because of the census. Congressional districts would be apportioned in a certain way because of the census. Immigrants being undercounted would have a lot of consequences, right?

WANG: That's right. And it's important to remember the Constitution requires account of every person living in the country, regardless of citizenship status, regardless of immigration status.

INSKEEP: Now, before these documents were discovered, what was the Trump administration saying was their reason for wanting a citizenship question in the census?

WANG: The Trump administration has said it wants this citizenship question to use those responses to better enforce part of the Voting Rights Act, specifically a portion that protects the voting rights of racial and language minorities.

But the plaintiffs here are arguing that these newly discovered documents belonging to Thomas Hofeller, a major Republican strategist - he died last August. His estranged daughter came across his hard drives, found these files that she passed along to lawyers who happened to be involved in the citizenship question lawsuits. And they came across a memo that Thomas Hofeller wrote back in 2015. He came up with a strategy that if you were to add a citizenship question to the census forms, he wrote, that you could use that information to redraw political maps to favor Republicans and non-Hispanic white people. And the plaintiffs are arguing that this strategy could be the real reason why the Trump administration wants to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census...

INSKEEP: Just to underline this, Hansi. There's already been a trial, right? Republican officials or rather Trump administration officials have testified under oath that they were just doing this - they wanted to count non-citizens so that they could help them, or they wanted to count immigrants so they could help them, but there's this memo saying the opposite was the case.

WANG: The Trump administration says they wanted to have a better count of who is and who isn't a citizen in the United States. But it's important to keep in mind, you know, that during the trial, the Census Bureau research was looked over here. And the Census Bureau has long recommended not adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census because it would not produce accurate information. Having people self-report whether or not they're a U.S. citizen is not the best way to collect information if you want to know who exactly is a citizen in the U.S.

INSKEEP: Now, briefly, there's this hearing in New York. How would this affect the various court proceedings?

WANG: This is going to be a really interesting hearing today. I'm going to see if the judge approves these requests from the plaintiffs who want to see more documents being released from the Trump administration as well as they want to see the judge to possibly order more depositions, more officials sitting down for questioning to try to get a bottom of this - these claims. And this could possibly affect - if there's additional documents released, additional testimony - this could affect the ruling that the Supreme Court is expected to release by the end of this month.

INSKEEP: That's the final judge here. The Supreme Court will be ruling on this.

WANG: Exactly. We're watching to see what the justices say. And it's a very tight deadline. July 1 is when the Census Bureau says that printing has to start for the 2020 census forms.

INSKEEP: Hansi, thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. 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.