President Donald Trump announced Thursday he is backing down from his effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, and will instead take executive action that instructs the Commerce Department to obtain an estimate of U.S. citizenship through other means.
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"I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and noncitizens in our country," Trump said in a Rose Garden announcement on Thursday afternoon. "They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately. We will utilize these vast federal databases to gain a full, complete, and accurate count of the noncitizen population."
Attorney General William Barr later took the podium at the event to congratulate the president on the executive order, and indicated that it marks the end of the three separate ongoing court cases the administration is fighting in Maryland, California and New York over the administration's efforts to add the question to the census.
"There is simply no way to litigate these issues and obtain relief from the current injunctions in time to implement any new decision without jeopardizing our ability to carry out the census," Barr said, after insisting that he believed the government's effort would have inevitably survived a legal review if brought back before the Supreme Court.
But Barr also suggested, near the close of his remarks, that the administration would explore ways to potentially use the information collected from agencies to advise the congressional redistricting process, a move that would almost certainly generate a legal challenge from the same groups that brought lawsuits over the citizenship question.
"There is a current dispute over whether illegal aliens can be included for apportionment purposes," Barr said. "Depending on the resolution of that dispute, this data may possibly prove relevant."
The announcement brings to a close weeks of escalating confusion within the government over his demands that the controversial question be included in the census despite a Supreme Court order that had blocked the move.
Director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project Dale Ho, who argued the census case before the Supreme Court, celebrated the announcement in a statement Thursday evening.
"Trump's attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper," Ho said. "He lost in the Supreme Court, which saw through his lie about needing the question for the Voting Rights Act. It is clear he simply wanted to sow fear in immigrant communities and turbocharge Republican gerrymandering efforts by diluting the political influence of Latino communities."
As recently as Thursday morning, administration officials had been repeatedly suggested the president would take executive action calling for the question be added to the census. It was not immediately clear when and why the final decision was made not to move forward with that plan.