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Supreme Court Prepares To Hear 2020 Census Citizenship Question

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear a case about the 2020 census. The justices are weighing whether the Trump administration could include a citizenship question on it. Some people argue that question shouldn't be included because it could affect the accuracy of the country's headcount.

Here to explain is NPR correspondent Hansi Lo Wang. He covers the census and is with me in our Washington, D.C., studio. Hi, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Would you explain the basics of this case to us? What would this question ask? And why is there a dispute over it?

WANG: This is a question that asks, is this person a citizen of the United States? Research has shown that this is a sensitive question, and especially now in this political climate of increased immigration enforcement, rising anti-immigrant rhetoric. Asking about citizenship will likely discourage households with non-citizens from participating in the census.

And that is a big deal because a census is supposed to be a head count of every person living in the country. That's a constitutional mandate regardless of citizenship or immigration status. And those numbers determine how many congressional seats each state gets, as well as how almost $900 billion a year in federal funding for roads, for schools, how all that money is distributed around the country.

PFEIFFER: Right, so a lot of financial and political implications if you don't have the correct population number, particularly of certain minorities.

WANG: Exactly.

PFEIFFER: What are the two sides arguing? What's that what's the for and the against?

WANG: Well, the Trump administration says it wanted to ask this question, they wanted it included on the forms for the 2020 census because it wants more detailed citizenship data in order to enforce part of the Voting Rights Act. However, if you've talked to voting rights advocates, and also, we have three federal judges at the district court levels, they have all agreed that this - one judge called it a sham justification - that there essentially is no data problem, that if the Trump administration really wanted to have more detailed citizenship data in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act, there was an alternative way that the Census Bureau was advocating for and suggesting, which would be to use existing government records.

That was a way - the Trump administration did not want to even meet with the Census Bureau to discuss and hear out the Census Bureau's suggestions. And that's part of one of the reasons why three federal judges have ruled that adding this question was a violation of administrative law and is also a violation of the Constitution in terms of hurting the government's ability of counting every person living in the country.

PFEIFFER: But, Hansi, a citizenship question has been on the census before. So why a controversy now?

WANG: The census has asked about citizenship before. And currently, the Census Bureau uses a different survey, known as the American Community Survey, to collect that information. But one of the considerations these three federal judges have made - or two federal judges have made in California, as well as Maryland - said that asking about this question in the context in which this question is asked is very important to consider, especially, again, this current political climate. They are really - critics of the question are really worried that this will really harm the accuracy of the headcount.

PFEIFFER: There's a deadline looming involving this case. What's the time pressure?

WANG: The Census Bureau says forms, the paper forms for the 2020 census, that has to - the printing of those forms has to start by July. The Supreme Court is currently expected to end their session in June. So the Census Bureau is waiting for a decision by the end of June in order to get those forms printed on time. There are no do-overs with the census. So whatever the court decides and whatever ends up being asked, we will be living with the data collected from it over for the next decade.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR correspondent Hansi Lo Wang. Thank you.

WANG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TASK'S "GREEN STAMPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.