WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, abruptly switching course, has decided to give up its fight to add a question about citizenship to next year’s census.
Word of the decision to give up the fight came initially in an email from a Justice Department attorney to the lawyers who had challenged the administration in court. The email announced the decision to begin printing census forms without the controversial question.
Administration officials did not dispute the authenticity of the email, but declined additional immediate comment.
A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed the decision to print the census forms without the citizenship query.
The Supreme Court last week blocked the administration’s effort to add the question on citizenship to the census, saying Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the Census Bureau, had not provided an honest answer for why he wanted to make the move.
But the 5-4 ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. gave the administration a chance to start over and try to come up with a new rationale for adding the question for the first time in decades.
As recently as Monday, President Trump had repeated his insistence that the census should include a question about citizenship. After the high court’s decision, he had publicly called for delaying the census.
“I think it’s very important to find out if somebody is a citizen as opposed to an illegal,” he said at the White House. “I think there’s a big difference, to me, between being a citizen of the United States and being an illegal.”
Because the census by law must keep responses anonymous, putting a citizenship question on the survey would not actually let officials know who is a legal resident and who isn’t. But it could have had a major impact on the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funds and the balance of political power in the country, hurting states, including California, that have large numbers of residents who are immigrants.
Many conservative legal scholars and advocates who believed Roberts went too far in his decision had urged the administration to move aggressively to revive the citizenship question. Some activists have gone further, harshly criticizing Roberts and accusing him of betrayal.
With the deadline for starting to print millions of census forms rapidly approaching, the administration faced time pressure to make a decision.
Democrats had argued that adding a question on citizenship would have been a partisan ploy to reduce minority participation in the census. Officials in California and other states, as well as neutral experts, warned the question would result in an undercount of immigrants that could cost some states billions in federal funds and shift congressional districts from states with large numbers of immigrants to those with fewer.
A senior administration official said Monday the White House was “weighing its legal options on the census issue.”
“The options it is weighing are within the confines of the Supreme Court decision,” the official added. “The options that we’re weighing are not ones that would be in contravention of the court.”
Trump, however, has often surprised even his senior staff by adopting proposals being pushed by influential conservative commentators.