The Trump administration will soon learn whether it will be allowed to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census, a decision that could affect political representation for millions of people, business decisions in one of the world’s most important consumer markets and billions of dollars in federal spending.
The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its ruling by the end of the month, in time for the US government to start printing the millions of census forms that will be distributed for the once-a-decade count of the US population.
Opponents say the effort to add the citizenship question is a political ploy to suppress the participation of immigrants and Latinos, undercounting the population in Democrat-leaning areas to the benefit of the Republican party and its supporters.
“It has a decade-long impact in both political representation and funding,” said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that has sued the Trump administration over the issue.
Republicans have insisted that the question can help generate a more accurate picture of the US landscape by getting a better count of the citizen and non-citizen populations, which would be crucial to the ongoing debate about immigration.
But an estimated 11m undocumented migrants live in the US and it is possible their households will decline to participate. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric has made immigrants generally less willing to respond to government surveys, fearing the administration would use the information to target them or their families, Democrats say.
One judge has already ruled that Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, violated both the law and the “public trust” by adding the question. Should the Supreme Court overturn that decision, the effects could reverberate throughout the country for years to come.
Chris Warshaw, a political-science professor at George Washington University, estimated that the self-response rate for the census, if the citizenship question were included, would be likely to go down by 5 percentage points among immigrant populations, which includes both citizens and non-citizens.
A drop of that size would lead to both California and Texas each losing a seat in the US House of Representatives, Mr Warshaw predicted, as both states have large Latino and non-citizen populations. New York and Florida could also each lose a congressional seat, while a predominately white state might end up holding on to a House seat it would have otherwise lost.
An even bigger shift may happen on the state level, where the new census data could be used by Republican state legislatures and governors to redraw district maps.
“This would heighten the consequences for the 2020 election. If Republicans can retain unified control [over all state legislative bodies] in a state like Texas, they’d have a lot of ability to redraw the map in a way that would lock in that power [for years to come],” Mr Warshaw said.
For businesses, undercounting hundreds of thousands or even millions of people matters, particularly in the context of low-margin industries
Census results are also used to help distribute an estimated $880bn in federal spending every year, for education, public health, infrastructure and transportation, as well as federal financial assistance programmes such as Medicaid. That means that districts with fewer residents filling out the survey could see a drop in funding.
It could also affect how much consumers reliant on federal support — such as low-income and elderly people — have to spend, just one of several ways that businesses say they could be affected by the question’s inclusion.
A group of companies including ride-hailing businesses Uber and Lyft, jeans maker Levi Strauss and ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s have told the Supreme Court that an inaccurate count could affect data-reliant decisions like where to build new stores and warehouses, how to market and price new products and where to sell them.
“For businesses, undercounting hundreds of thousands or even millions of people matters, particularly in the context of low-margin industries where even slight adjustments of data could materially affect the accuracy of projected revenue and costs”, the companies wrote in a court filing.
The first time a question about citizenship was included on a US census was 1820. It was removed in 1950, as officials worried that it was affecting the accuracy of the headcount.
“It is not as if this is somehow unprecedented,” said Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, a conservative think-tank. “The United Nations has a manual on how to do these kind of censuses and they recommend a citizenship question.”
The legal battle has spilled over into Congress, where the Democrat-controlled House oversight committee voted to hold Mr Ross and William Barr, the attorney-general, in contempt for failing to turn over documents related to their decision to include the citizenship question.
In another legal challenge, a Maryland judge has signalled that there may be a “substantial issue” to address, after newly discovered files from deceased Republican redistricting strategist Thomas Hofeller suggested that he was involved in drafting the citizenship question and believed that its addition to the census would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites”.
Opponents of the citizenship question had asked the Supreme Court to hold off on ruling until that issue had been addressed, while the justice department has argued that it is irrelevant.
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