US to add citizenship question in 2020 Census: Commerce Department

March 26 (Reuters) - A question about citizenship status will be included on the 2020 Census to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, federal officials said on Monday, but California sued to block the move arguing that it would discourage immigrants from participating.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross decided to add the question to the count after a Department of Justice request based on the desire for better enforcement of the voting law, the U.S. Department of Commerce said in a statement.

"Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts," it said.

The census, which is mandated under the U.S. Constitution and takes place every 10 years, counts every resident in the United States. It is used to determine the allocation to states of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds to local communities.

Ross said in a memo that the Voting Rights Act requires a tally of citizens of voting age to protect minorities against discrimination, and that getting this information as part of the census would make it more complete.

Wilbur Ross's time as Commerce Secretary
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Wilbur Ross's time as Commerce Secretary
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks to the Economic Club of New York in New York City, U.S., October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stands behind U.S. President Donald Trump, who speaks at the Minority Enterprise Development Week White House awards ceremony, at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Defense Secretary James Mattis listen as U.S. President Donald Trump meets with members of his cabinet at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks next to U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad during a bilateral meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing, China, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shakes hands with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang before a bilateral meeting at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing, China, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (3rd R) and Vice President Mike Pence (2nd R) join U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) for an event highlighting emerging technologies, in the East Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross testifies before a House Appropriations Subcommittee about the newly released 2018 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 25, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross speaks next to Press Secretary Sean Spicer about new tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber from the White House in Washington, U.S. April 25, 2017.REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is welcomed by Japan's Minister of Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko at the start of their talks in Tokyo, Japan April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) swears in Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce as his wife Hilary watches, in Washington, DC, U.S. February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Wilbur Ross speaks, as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence watches, after being sworn in as Secretary of Commerce in Washington, DC, U.S. February 28, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, chairman of Invesco Ltd subsidiary WL Ross & Co, departs Trump Tower after a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in New York, U.S., November 29, 2016. Picture taken November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Opponents of a Census question about citizenship status say it could further discourage immigrants from participating in the count, especially when they are already fearful of how information could be used against them.

The State of California, which has a large immigrant population, responded early on Tuesday by filing a lawsuit in federal court against the commerce department and census bureau.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra asked the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California to issue a preliminary injunction and rule that the move violates the constitution by interfering with the obligation to conduct a full count of the U.S. population.

The announcement came as President Donald Trump tries to keep his campaign promise to build a border wall between Mexico and the United States and to crack down on illegal immigration.

He ordered stricter immigration enforcement and banned travelers from several Muslim-majority countries soon after taking office in January 2017.

"This untimely, unnecessary, and untested citizenship question will disrupt planning at a critical point, undermine years of painstaking preparation, and increase costs significantly, putting a successful, accurate count at risk," the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a statement.

Test surveys showed in late 2017 that some immigrants were afraid to provide information to U.S. Census workers because of fears about being deported.

"This decision comes at a time when we have seen xenophobic and anti-immigrant policy positions from this administration," said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.



Immigrants and those who live with immigrants are troubled by confidentiality and data-sharing aspects of the count, Mikelyn Meyers, a researcher at the Census Bureau's Center for Survey Measurement, told a meeting of the bureau's National Advisory Committee in November.

Census researchers have said immigrants they interviewed spontaneously raised topics like the travel ban and the dissolution of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that has protected from deportation young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

One person, Meyers said, told government interviewers: "The possibility that the Census could give my information to internal security and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me."

Citizen questions have appeared on the census in the past and are included on more frequent population surveys that are administered by the census bureau.

Ross said he met Census officials and considered arguments for and against the change made by interest groups, members of congress and state and local officials.

He said no evidence was provided to the agency that showed a citizenship question would decrease response rates among those who already "generally distrusted government and government information collection efforts, disliked the current administration, or feared law enforcement."

However, Ross said the commerce department was unable to determine how the citizen question would affect responsiveness.

"Even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns," he said in the memo. (Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee Editing by Eric Meijer, Paul Tait and Peter Graff)

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