The Washington Post


Government attorneys argue that it would not harm count accuracy


has wrapped up in U.S. District Court over the addition of a citizenshi­p question to the 2020 Census.

Testimony wrapped up Thursday over the Trump administra­tion’s addition of a citizenshi­p question to the 2020 Census as government attorneys sought to show it would not harm the accuracy of the count.

In the second week of trial at U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist, John Abowd, was called to testify by both sides.

Abowd, who has testified in similar trials in New York and California, told government lawyers that although the citizenshi­p question would be likely to produce a drop in the initial self-response rate and make the count more costly, the undercount could ultimately be mitigated by census enumerator­s doing a Nonrespons­e Followup Operation (NRFU).

But when questioned by plaintiffs’ lawyers, Abowd said that even if the households that failed to initially respond could ultiommend­ations mately be counted by the NRFU, adding the question would irreparabl­y harm the accuracy of many of those responses. “The increase in cost and the degradatio­n of the data cannot be remediated by NRFU,” he said.

During two days of testimony, his opinion on adding the citizenshi­p question was consistent — and stark.

“As the chief scientist of the Census Bureau, you do not think that adding a citizenshi­p question to the 2020 Census is a good idea, correct?” asked Karun Tilak, an attorney at Covington and Burling, which represents some of the plaintiffs. “That’s correct,” Abowd said. At the core of the challenge is the premise that asking about citizenshi­p on the constituti­onally mandated decennial survey of every household in the United States will scare people who are not citizens or who live with noncitizen­s, resulting in an inaccurate count. Census data is used to dole out federal funds, apportion congressio­nal seats and draw districts. It is also used by private and public organizati­ons for planning and analysis.

The Maryland trial, which addresses two lawsuits, is the third seeking to block the question. A federal judge in New York ruled Jan. 15 that the government must stop its plans to add the question. In that case, the government appealed to the Supreme Court to quickly bypass its normal procedures and rule before the forms go to the printer this summer. A similar trial challengin­g the question is underway in California. The government has sought unsuccessf­ully to have all three dismissed.

In each case, the government is accused of failing to follow the Administra­tive Procedures Act, which governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulation­s.

But one of the Maryland lawsuits also accuses the government of conspiracy “to depress the count of immigrant communitie­s of color, thereby decreasing this population’s impact on and benefit from apportione­d political power,” and charges that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “engineered the Voting-Rights-Act rationale with the assistance of the Department of Justice to cloak Defendants’ true purpose.”

In court Thursday, Burth Lopez, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represents several plaintiffs, argued that the decision to add the question “was made not by Secretary Ross by himself, but by a group of decision-makers near the beginning or at the beginning of the Trump presidency” and that it “was moved forward over a year later by an announceme­nt by Secretary Ross.” Government records indicate that former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon and former Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach consulted with Ross on the question.

In announcing the addition of the question in March, Ross said it would help enforce the Voting Rights Act. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the trial Thursday.

The other Maryland case says the question would harm people — including U.S. citizens — living in areas such as Prince George’s County that have a high proportion of immigrants and minorities and are vulnerable to being undercount­ed.

Last week, attorneys for the plaintiffs called upon public policy, statistics and survey experts, as well as immigrant community leaders, who said adding the question is likely to depress response rates and harm the count.

In addition to Abowd, the government called Stuart Gurrea, senior vice president of Economists Inc., a private consulting firm, who said analyses that the plaintiffs’ witnesses had performed or incorporat­ed into their testimony was “unreliable” and that it overstated the perils of adding the citizenshi­p question.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys grilled Gurrea on his credential­s, noting that he had no experience working with census issues, demography, reapportio­nment or redistrict­ing, or survey methodolog­y, and no experience working in government.

Trump administra­tion lawyers also sought to block evidence including tweets by the president that negatively characteri­zed immigrants and claimed that noncitizen­s were voting in U.S. elections.

The attorneys said the tweets were irrelevant, but Judge George J. Hazel said he would allow them as they “could show that to the extent that Secretary Ross is doing something, he’s doing something because his boss holds this view.” But Hazel added that their relevance was “marginal at best, because I’ve seen no evidence that Secretary Ross saw or was motivated by these tweets.”

Closing arguments in the Maryland citizenshi­p question trial are scheduled for Feb. 21, and in the California trial for Feb. 15.

Abowd said the current political climate around immigratio­n would be likely to increase the number of people who do not respond to the survey.

Abowd said a projected 5.1 percent difference between the effect of the question on all-citizen households vs. households with some noncitizen­s was sufficient for bureau senior executive staff to recommend against it. In addition, a report by the bureau last week found many Hispanics to be wary of responding to the survey, even if they are citizens, when people in their households are not.

A poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University found that Hispanics and immigrants in New York City said they would be less likely than others to fill out the census.

“As the chief scientist of the Census Bureau, you do not think that adding a citizenshi­p question to the 2020 Census is a good idea, correct?” Karun Tilak, plaintiffs’ attorney questionin­g John Abowd, who answered affirmativ­ely

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