The Commerce Department announced late Monday that it would resume the long-abandoned practice of asking about citizenship during the Census, which is taken every 10 years. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that information is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who filed the lawsuit, and others argue that asking people whether they are citizens is not only unconstitutional but also would intimidate immigrants — legal and illegal — and result in a dramatic undercount of minority communities.
Census data are used to distrubute billions of federal dollars for schools, roads, hospitals and other social services. The information also is used to apportion seats in Congress, meaning states with high numbers of minorities could lose seats in the House of Representatives if people are afraid to respond to the Census.
California could be hit particularly hard, with more than 10 million foreign-born residents. Many have at least one undocumented immigrant in their household.
"An accurate count of everyone living in the United States is vital to our democracy," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Tuesday. "Adding a question designed to depress participation in certain communities is an assault on the foundations of this country."
Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder, now with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said he would sue the administration to block the question from the Census. And New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he would lead a multistate lawsuit to do the same.
The California lawsuit was the first to be filed and sets up another clash between Becerra, a former Democratic House member, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Republican senator.
Becerra has repeatedly used the courts to challenge the Trump administration over its wide-ranging efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
In January, a federal judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security to restart the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected from deportation nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Becerra filed that lawsuit, along with the California University System and several California cities, after Homeland Security tried to shut down the program.
In September, Becerra's office sued to halt any expansion of the southern border wall, arguing that the Trump administration sidestepped Congress and ignored environmental laws by trying to push a rapid expansion of the controversial proposal. Building a wall on the border with Mexico was one of Trump's signature campaign promises. Last week he complained that Congress gave only $1.6 billion for its expansion, far lower than the $25 billion the White House requested over the next decade.
Several California cities got another victory in April when a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration overstepped its legal authority when it threatened to withhold federal grants from "sanctuary cities" that do not fully comply with federal immigration efforts.
The administration has responded forcefully against California's actions. Sessions traveled to Sacramento in March to announce a lawsuit against the state's sanctuary cities laws. Sessions said those laws undermine federal immigration enforcement and put immigration agents at risk.
"Open borders is a radical, irrational idea that cannot be accepted," Sessions said In a speech to local law enforcement officials.
California has been a flashpoint in the immigration debate since Trump was elected. He repeatedly used the 2015 shooting death of Kathryn Steinle by an undocumented immigrant to argue that illegal immigration was out of control. A San Francisco jury found the suspect, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, not guilty in November, which Trump described as a "disgraceful verdict."
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf became a target of the Trump administration in February when she warned residents of upcoming raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan railed against that move, saying the mayor allowed hundreds of "dangerous criminal aliens" to evade capture.
"California’s sanctuary policies are illegal and unconstitutional and put the safety and security of our entire nation at risk," Trump tweeted March 18. "Thousands of dangerous & violent criminal aliens are released as a result of sanctuary policies, set free to prey on innocent Americans. THIS MUST STOP!"