Maryland attorney general joins suit against Trump administration over Census citizenship question

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh joined 17 of his counterparts across the country Tuesday in suing the Trump administration over a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, which critics say would drive down immigrant participation and lead to an undercount of states’ populations.

Frosh, a Democrat, said both documented and undocumented immigrants may not fill out a census form sent to their address that asks about citizenship for fear the information would be used against them.

“They know they’re targets,” Frosh said. “They know Trump is on this anti-immigrant campaign.”

An undercount of the actual number of residents would affect everything from congressional representation to the amount of federal funds localities receive for transportation, Medicaid and other vital programs, he said.

The lawsuit is among more than 20 lawsuits that Frosh has filed, joined in or considered against the Trump administration over various policies and regulations, from the Muslim travel ban to the rollback of environmental regulations. Last week, a federal judge ruled that a suit Frosh and his counterpart in Washington, D.C., filed against Trump alleging he violated a constitutional prohibition on accepting foreign gifts could proceed.

But the number of suits Frosh has filed has drawn fire from Gov. Larry Hogan and other state Republicans. Over their objections, the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed a resolution last year giving Frosh freedom to sue the Trump administration without getting prior approval from the General Assembly or the governor.

Maryland Del. Kathy Szeliga, the minority whip, said she does not believe the proposed citizenship question would have the dire effects predicted by its critics. A similar question is asked already in the smaller American Community Survey, and census information cannot be used legally for law enforcement purposes, she said.

“I’m more concerned of another example of Attorney General Brian Frosh wasting taxpayer money on petty partisan politics,” Szeliga said.

Frosh denied that his litigation is politically motivated.

“Every single one is one in which the government has violated the law or the Constitution,” he said. “They’re all consequential actions.”

The Department of Justice asked the Census Bureau in December to include the request for citizenship information in the form every household will receive. Justice officials argued that they needed the information to enforce voting laws.

Brigitta Mullican of Rockville, a supporter of Help Save Maryland, a group that says it wants to prevent “the negative effects of illegal aliens,” said she doesn’t understand the criticism of the citizenship question.

“As a naturalized citizen, who became a US Citizen when I was 18, I can’t figure out why it is objectionable to ask for citizenship on the census,” Mullican, a retired federal budget official, wrote in an email. “It is the best way to count the real number of citizens and non-citizens. There are only estimates now. We know there are people working without documentation. Who is afraid of the real numbers and why?”

The plaintiffs argue that asking the question would drive down the participation of immigrants and would impede the “actual enumeration” that the Constitution requires of the census. And an inaccurate census would cause financial harm, the lawsuit says, because census data is used to determine how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed.

Additionally, states with large immigrant populations may lose fair representation in Congress as a result of an undercount, the plaintiffs say.

George Escobar, senior director of human services for CASA, the immigrant rights group, said a citizenship question is part of a “full-on assault by the administration on our community, to undercount them, to under-resource their communities.”

“Full participation in the census is what we prioritize,” Escobar said. “This does nothing but threaten that.”

Frosh said that even immigrants who are citizens or who are here legally with green cards may be reluctant to fill out a census form asking about citizenship — especially after Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) program that allowed some undocumented persons brought here as children to remain.

“I know several people who are immigrants and citizens and don’t want to cause trouble, don’t wan’t the light on them, don’t want to be asked if they’re citizens,” he said. “Look what happened to the DACA kids: They came out of the shadows, shared their information, and now it’s being used against them.”

The lawsuit is led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He and Frosh are joined in the suit by attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. The cities of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Providence, R.I., San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors, also joined in the suit.

Mayor Catherine Pugh recently went on Fox News to voice the conference’s opposition to the citizenship question. She serves as chair of the conference’s Census Task Force.

“Conflating issues of citizenship with the process to ensure that each and every person living in our country is counted distorts and politicizes this important Constitutional process,” she said in a statement.

“I join with my fellow mayors across the country in opposing this latest maneuver by the Trump administration to advance policies and attitudes that only serve to perpetuate bias.”

Baltimore was among more than 200 cities that challenged the results of the 2010 census, saying it missed thousands of housing units. The city argued that its population had actually held steady since 2000, rather than losing 30,000 people. But the challenge led to just a small adjustment — the census revised the 2010 city population upward by just 113 people, to 621,074 residents.

A spokesman for the Commerce Department, of which the Census Bureau is a part, declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond saying it was “without merit” and that the agency looked forward to conducting “a complete and accurate” count in 2020.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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