Court Blocks Trump’s Plan to Add a Citizenship Question to 2020 Census

UPDATE (3/21/2019): The Trump administration has appealed the ruling and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. The ACLU will appear before the Supreme Court on April 23, 2019.

A federal court has blocked the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, stating that it constitutes an “egregious” violation of federal law. The ruling deals a serious blow to the administration’s plan to use the 2020 census to attack the financial and political resources of immigrants and communities of color.

In a decision released Tuesday, Judge Jesse M. Furman determined that the Trump administration's attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, “would undermine the proposition—central to the rule of law—that ours is a government of laws, and not of men" and that it violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in many different ways — “a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations.” In the end, Judge Furman concluded that if the Trump administration got its way and a citizenship question was put on the census, “hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people will go uncounted in the census.”

In particular, Judge Furman ruled that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” pursuant to the APA, which governs federal agency action. As demonstrated at trial, Secretary Ross decided to add a citizenship question in the early days of the Trump administration and only after did it “set out to find a ‘legal rationale’ to support it”— a reverse engineering process that both directly contravenes the APA and goes against the story that Secretary Ross has told for months. During the course of our litigation, we obtained documents that revealed that Secretary Ross lied to Congress about the origin of the citizenship question, testifying that he added the question because the Department of Justice had requested it in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA). However, as litigation revealed, Secretary Ross actually started considering a citizenship question almost 10 months before DOJ made its request, and he had even compelled Commerce Department staff to push DOJ to make the ask in the first place.

It’s no wonder that Judge Furman determined that Secretary Ross’s March 2018 memo officially adding the question, his sworn testimony before Congress, and the information he initially provided in our lawsuit was “materially inaccurate.”

Judge Furman also determined that “Secretary Ross’s explanations for his decision were unsupported by, or even counter to, the evidence” before him. Namely, Ross ignored a voluminous amount of quantitative evidence showing that a citizenship question would both harm the quality of census data and result in a net differential undercount — meaning that noncitizens and Hispanics would disproportionately be undercounted resulting in states and localities with large immigrant and Hispanic communities losing political power and federal funding for crucial social programs. By ignoring large swaths of evidence showing how harmful a citizenship question would be, and by failing to adequately test a citizenship question before putting it on the census form, “Secretary Ross’s decision [was] neither logical nor rational.”

The ruling came in a consolidated set of cases brought on behalf of several immigrants’ rights groups, as well as 18 states, 15 cities and counties, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In June 2018, the ACLU sued to stop the citizenship question from going forward, and on Nov. 5, we commenced a two-week trial before Judge Furman.

The Constitution requires that the federal government conduct a census every 10 years to count the total number of all “persons” living in the United States. Everyone is counted without exception — adults and children, citizens and non-citizens alike. The Trump administration added the question for the first time in 70 years despite longstanding opposition to the question from the Census Bureau during both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Experts agreed that asking about citizenship on a decennial census survey would have an inevitable and predictable consequence: It would drive down participation and skew the accuracy of the count. So did Secretary Ross: When testifying before the Senate, he conceded that by the administration’s own estimate, the question could result in an undercount of an estimated 1 percent of the population — more than 3 million people.

Census population data is critically important for two main reasons. For one, it’s used to apportion representation in Congress, draw congressional and state legislative districts, and allocate votes in the Electoral College. It also determines how an estimated $900 billion in funding is allocated for crucial social service programs such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Title 1 funding for elementary and secondary schools, and social services block grants. A significant undercount of immigrant communities of color — a near-certainty if a citizenship question is put on the 2020 census form — will dramatically reduce the political power of, and federal funding allocated to, immigrant communities of color for the next 10 years. 

Secretary Ross’s purported Voting Rights Act rationale has also fallen apart under even basic scrutiny. DOJ has neither requested nor needed a citizenship question on the census to enforce the VRA in the 53-year history of the law. John Gore — a former top-ranking DOJ official who ghostwrote the DOJ letter requesting a citizenship question — testified that the question is not necessary for VRA enforcement, and that he doesn’t even know whether the citizenship data that DOJ will get from a citizenship question is any better than the data on which DOJ currently relies for VRA enforcement, undercutting Secretary Ross’s entire rationale for the question. And former Attorney General Jeff Sessions even forbade DOJ staff from meeting with Census Bureau experts who wanted to share an alternative proposal to give DOJ higher-quality citizenship data at lower cost for VRA enforcement.

Secretary Ross’s justification for a citizenship question, as Judge Furman’s decision shows, is a sham — a deception designed to cover up the true motive of reducing the political power of communities whom the Trump administration has targeted since its first days in office. The Trump administration will no doubt appeal the ruling, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. But for now, a federal court stands in the way of a citizenship question on the census.

Sign up for the ACLU’s Best Reads and get our finest content from the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday.

View comments (17)
Read the Terms of Use


Trump doesn't have the power to force the SCOTUS to review this decision, so it's the law of the land. Plus, I think Ross is going to prison.


SgrA. Could you elaborate regarding Ross?

Clay Dennis

Thank you very much for taking on and winning this case. Would that I had enough money to donate to the cause. Wilber Ross is a jerk.


This ruling makes zero sense. The government has every right to know the number of citizens and non- citizens that are currently living in this country. This is a moronic ruling by the courts and further proof that the ACLU is an extremest organization.




With all the Red-madhatters, like perhaps 43% of the American electorate, do you think the reformation of the Republican party will ever happen? The religious-right prevents their reformation away from the deception for which they are infamous. Deplorable.
These are perennial crybullies.


You speak of the government having the right to know how many non-citizens are in this country, but do you honestly think that a non-citizen is going to participate in the census if that question is asked?


I disagree with you writer who claims this ‘Ruling makes zero sense”,, and I appreciate this article and it speaks to people like yourself who are the extremists pointing fingers at ACLU with your biases deeply rooted in racist assumptions of your entitlement. I also object to census’ s in that a woman living alone is a vulnerable person, add to that an elderly woman living alone is a double vulnerability. So where I love censuses for family research I see corruption is the name of our game now the Russians have Trump puppetteering at intersections where their political agendas agree. This racist profiling by our newish micromanaging president of pimps put s all USA citizens who immigrated here legally as another vulnerability. I not agree with targeting women and children living in poverty and fear. I disagree with Ttumps and Ross’s agenda which includedisenfranchising any human who they can target for vulturistic purposes. I wish I could say that the extreme right are a minority but either they are hiring bots or their archaic racism is spreading through Trump surfacing as a negative force in authority. Next comes the Nazi agenda in a USA suit.


Is secretary Ross going to be charged with lying and attempting to deceive? How about Sessions?


Thanks for your question which I echo! I woke up this am wondering if we and the ACLU and the new Democrat’s and great reporters can undo what Trump has bought down in this country. Interestingly his Moms from Scotland his Grandfather German comes from the country next to Russia and he, the sonnoc a Scottish born Smerican Citizen has opened the Pandora’s box of racism to propagate in a multi dimensional scale.. His wife must want to smother him daily, at least I would married to an all about me baby with no sex appeal or social skills and his financial empire in constant negotiations under Russia as he needed bail out money when European and USA Banks all had had enough of his narcissistic lying money game.


Stay Informed