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What’s at stake in the battle over the 2020 census citizenship question

The House Oversight Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for not turning over documents related to the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. While President Trump defends the question, critics say it's intended to benefit Republicans politically. Judy Woodruff talks to NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, congressional Democrats today escalated a legal fight with the Trump administration over the U.S. census, voting to hold Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress.

    At issue, the intent of the administration's move to include a citizenship question in the nationwide survey, which is done every 10 years.

    Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia blasted the motive behind the question, while, in the Oval Office today, President Trump defended the additional question.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I think it's totally ridiculous that we would have census without asking. But the Supreme Court is going to be ruling on it soon. I think, when a census goes out, you should find out whether or not, and you have the right to ask whether or not somebody is a citizen of the United States.

  • Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.:

    The citizenship question is not just a normal question. By the way, it hasn't been asked on the census since 1950, the year I was born, for a reason: because it's going to intimidate and discourage. And it has to be seen in the context, the context of an anti-immigrant policy coming out of this White House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hansi Lo Wang who covers the census for NPR. And he joins us from New York.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, Hansi, what we have got going here, we have the president saying that it is perfectly the right of the administration to ask whether people are citizens or not on the census. But then, separately, you have claims that there is evidence that the administration was adding this question for political reasons, and then trying to cover it up.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Right.

    There are recently disclosed documents the plaintiffs in one of the New York-based lawsuits over the citizenship question, they point to. These are from the hard drives of a GOP redistricting strategist, Thomas Hofeller. He died last year. His estranged daughter came over — came across these hard drives. They include files that the plaintiffs here are saying suggests that Hofeller was involved in crafting the administration's push for the citizenship question.

    Hofeller concluded that adding a citizenship question to the census could politically benefit Republicans and non-Hispanic white people by using responses to that question to redraw political maps after the 2020 census.

    And so this is a major dispute between the Trump administration and the plaintiffs. The administration, of course, says this is about protecting the voting rights of racial minorities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Hofeller, North Carolina political strategist who passed away, his daughter was able to get access to this information.

    How is that, though, connected to the Trump administration?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Well, the plaintiffs you are saying that Hofeller possibly ghost-wrote one of the early requests to the Justice — to the Census Bureau to request the citizenship question, because the plaintiffs found a paragraph word for word that appeared in Hofeller's files, as well as in an early request for a citizenship question that the Trump administration was preparing.

    And so they say that he — that shows that Hofeller involved, and also that Hofeller helped come up with a strategy for using the Voting Rights Act as a rationale for justifying the addition of a citizenship question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the administration is — is — whatever these documents are, the administration is saying, we're not going to turn them over?

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Well, the documents that the administration is protecting right now and invoking executive privilege over, these are internal e-mails and memos within the Justice Department and also the Commerce Department.

    And the Democrats on the House Oversight Committee said they want to see all the documents, and they want to see unredacted versions. And one of these e-mails helps reveal that this question, this request for a question started months earlier than the administration was saying initially. They said that this was initiated by the Justice Department.

    But one of these e-mails, the unredacted portion, show that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he had a months-long request for this question shortly after he was confirmed as commerce secretary.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Hansi, let's talk about what's at stake here, because there's a — the nonpartisan think tank the Urban Institute has done a study that shows — at least their work shows that if you add a citizenship question, it could result in as many as four million people being undercounted in the census.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Right.

    These are the estimates. And one former Census Bureau director told me that could be a conservative estimate. The major concern here is that the stakes are very high. When we're talking about the census, we're talking about money, we're talking about power.

    These numbers determine how many congressional seats, Electoral College votes each state gets. And hundreds of billions of dollars, an estimated $880 billion a year in federal funding, for schools, for roads, for other public services, including Medicare and Medicaid, those are — that money is distributed based on census numbers.

    So the concern here is that, if there isn't an undercount, specifically of immigrant communities, communities of color, that some parts of the country may not get their fair share in federal funding and political representation for the next 10 years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, serious, serious funding decisions at issue here.

    But, Hansi, Republicans still are making the argument that there, in their words, there's always been some kind of citizenship question on the census.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    Well, the first census back in 1790 didn't include a question about citizenship status. The first time the census asked about citizenship status was back in 1820. And since then, it's been on and off the census. And it's really been asked of parts of the population, not every household necessarily, consistently.

    Back in 1950 was the last time a citizenship question was included on the forms for every household. But that question back in 1950 was only asked of people born outside the U.S. Really, if you were to dig back into those history books, the census history books, you would realize that the 2020 census, if it were to include a citizenship question, it would be the first time the census in the United States has been used to directly ask for citizenship status of every person living in the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we will see where this will go. A lot of people are watching the courts.

    Thank you, Hansi Lo Wang.

  • Hansi Lo Wang:

    You're welcome.

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