The Trump administration's plan to include a controversial question about citizenship status to the upcoming 2020 census is sparking a backlash from civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers.
This will be the first time since 1950 that a question about citizenship status is asked on the census, the Department of Commerce said in a statement released Monday evening.
The agency said the citizenship question will help to ensure enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law created to ensure minority access to the polls.
The announcement from Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross comes after the Department of Justice requested the question be reinstated. A citizenship question is a late addition to the census as other census questions have already been announced.
Critics say asking about citizenship status will decrease participation in the census by non-citizens at a time when, they say, many fear an increased national anti-immigration sentiment and threats against immigrants from the administration.
In an op-ed published Monday, California's Attorney General Xavier Bacerra slammed the decision.
“Innocuous at first blush, its effect would be truly insidious,” Bacerra wrote. “It would discourage noncitizens and their citizen family members from responding to the census, resulting in a less accurate population count.”
Following the news that the question would be included, Bacerra said that the state of California plans to sue the Trump administration, arguing that the question is in violation of the U.S. Constitution's requirement that there be an “actual enumeration” of the total United States population, including both citizens and non-citizens.
The state of California has perhaps the most to lose if the citizenship question does influence participation in the census count.
Data from the census is used to determine the number of seats a state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives and can have a significant effect on the way congressional and state voting districts are drawn.
In the op-ed, Bacerra said that California, with its large immigrant population, could be disproportionately affected by depressed census participation.
It is not entirely clear, however, whether such a question could limit participation in any meaningful way.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a group that pushes for decreased immigration says participation in the census has already decreased and that it seems unlikely that a citizenship question would decrease census participation.
But other organizations, like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group that has lobbied for immigrant rights in the past, disputed that claim, calling the choice to include a citizenship question an “arbitrary and untested decision that all but guarantees that the census will not produce a full and accurate count of the population as the constitution requires.”
California has been at the forefront of immigration-related lawsuits recently.
The Justice Department recently announced it was suing California over state and city laws the federal government has said extend protections to people living in the country illegally in so-called "sanctuary cities."
But California isn’t the only state that has opposed the citizenship question. Last month a coalition of 19 state attorneys general signed onto a letter to the Department of Commerce urging the question be rejected.
Several Republican senators voiced support for including the question, having previously sent a letter to the Department of Commerce urging the question be reinstated.
In a joint statement from several Republican senators, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, praised Ross for announcing the decision to include a citizenship question, calling it a “reasonable, common sense addition to the census."
But on the other side of the aisle, members are mobilizing to block the question from appearing. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., said she would introduce legislation to stop the question from being included in the census. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, another New York Democrat, has also sponsored legislation to block it.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement Tuesday in which she said that “the Trump Administration put politics over the Constitution.” The ACLU followed with its own statement, calling the choice to include a citizenship question "disastrous".
Democrats are joined in opposition by a coalition of former census directors. In a letter sent to Wilbur Ross in January and obtained by the Washington Post, six former census directors expressed concern about the question, noting that the effect of adding a citizenship question is “completely unknown” and that adding such a question would “increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.”