RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A trial begins today that may determine whether a controversial new question will stay on the 2020 census. The question is as follows. Quote, "is this person a citizen of the United States?" Six lawsuits have been filed in an effort to get the question removed, and the first trial starts today in New York City. No matter which side wins, the issue will likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court. NPR national correspondent Hansi Lo Wang has been covering these lawsuits, and I spoke with him earlier.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: All right, first off, there will be people out there who say, wait; isn't the entire point of the U.S. census to count the number of U.S. citizens? So can you explain that and why this particular question is such a big deal?
WANG: The census is a head count of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens. You know, who is counted is not based on citizenship status. It's based on who is living in the country.
MARTIN: Just people, anyone.
WANG: Exactly, anyone who is considered to be living in the country. And so asking about citizenship status - that is a sensitive question for a lot of people. And the concern here is that it will lead to a bad count, inaccurate information being collected. And that's backed up by research from the Census Bureau that shows that a lot of people are scared of this question, that some people think that this question - the real purpose of it they think is for the government to locate undocumented immigrants. And that's going to make the Census Bureau's job very, very hard. They need to count everyone once and where they live. And, you know, it's not just their job. It's a constitutional requirement.
MARTIN: And so the concern - just to draw that out - is that people wouldn't report. They would be afraid that they would be deported as a result, and so the census would be off.
WANG: That's the concern, that sending out census workers to follow up with those households will not be enough to make sure that we have an accurate count and accurate information in 2020.
MARTIN: So what do we know about the reasons that this question was added? Was it about trying to figure out who is in this country illegally?
WANG: That's one of the main questions in this lawsuit. In March, when they announced this question, they said it was for the Voting Rights Act - better enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department, they said, needs more detailed citizenship data to better enforce protections against racial discrimination.
But just last night, I saw a court filing of testimony from the head of the Civil Rights Division, John Gore. He's testified that this question is not necessary. We also know that there was an alternative to adding a question that the Census Bureau said would provide more accurate data, would cost less money. But the Trump administration wanted to avoid that alternative, and they ultimately decided to push this question onto the census.
MARTIN: So this has triggered all kinds of lawsuits, the first starting today. What is the argument against this? I mean, what are groups really concerned about here?
WANG: They're really concerned that if you have a inaccurate count, you have inaccurate information, that's going to have profound implications across the country over the next decade. The census is only taken once every 10 years, and these numbers directly impact how many congressional seats, electoral college votes each state gets. An estimated $800 billion a year in federal tax dollars is also on the line. And that money goes directly to fund local schools, relief for hurricanes and wildfires and fixing your local roads.
MARTIN: And I imagine there's some urgency here because it takes a lot of money and time to put together a census.
WANG: Exactly. This trial is only expected to last 10 days. But we're not sure exactly when the judge will issue his ruling in this case in New York. There are two other cases in California, two other cases in Maryland. Ultimately, all these rulings are going to be appealed to the Supreme Court, and it's unclear exactly when the Supreme Court will rule. They have until June, but forms for the census are scheduled to be printed starting in May.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
WANG: You're welcome.
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