An Interview with Thomas Saenz by Pilar Marrero, La Opinion & Ethnic Media Services
Editor’s Note: Two federal judges recently ruled against the Trump administration’s plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), is lead co-counsel on another lawsuit now pending before Judge George J. Hazel of U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.
Saenz sat down for an interview with La Opinion and Ethnic Media Services to explain why the citizenship question is illegal, in his view, and what he thinks the intentions were behind the administration’s last-minute proposed change to the 2020 Census. Saenz anticipates an imminent favorable decision from the Maryland judge, which could add yet another ruling to prevent the question from moving forward.
The civil rights leader explained that so far the courts have found that Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (whose agency oversees the Census Bureau) violated the laws and the Constitution because the bid to add the citizenship question to the Census questionnaire was “arbitrary and capricious, failed to adequately notify Congress and was pretextual.” Additionally, the California court ruled that Ross’ proposal violated the Census clause of the Constitution, which indicates that any last-minute change must “fulfill a reasonable governmental purpose” and not interfere with the actual enumeration.
MALDEF is involved in another lawsuit now pending in front of a federal judge. Why is another lawsuit necessary and what’s different about the MALDEF suit?
There were actually seven different lawsuits filed against the citizenship question. Six were consolidated into three. Our case went to trial a little later but we expect a decision soon.
What’s unique and still to be determined in our case is whether there was a conspiracy to intentionally discriminate against the Latino community and the Asian American community by adding the citizenship question.
Would a favorable ruling in your lawsuit strengthen the challenge to the citizenship question that will be heard by the Supreme Court on April 23?
The first case, ruled on by the federal court in New York, has been taken up by the Supreme Court, bypassing the appropriate court of appeals in order to get a final decision to the Census Bureau in time for its June deadline for printing the questionnaire.
The Northern California case and MALDEF’s case – if we prevail – would go to the appeals courts and, I expect, then be taken up by the Supreme Court in some form, probably without a full hearing, to meet the Census Bureau printing deadlines.
The judge in California said it was clear that Ross was looking for any way to have the question added even though experts in the Census Bureau warned it would intimidate some groups from responding. What’s your view?
It’s clear from the two court rulings so far that Ross lied to the American public and to Congress about why the citizenship question was being added. He was acting to reduce the overall count of Latinos and thus reduce their political power. Latino voters have not demonstrated support for the extreme conservative positions of the Trump administration.
Even if the citizenship question is taken off the table, do you think there are good conditions to ensure a full count by the 2020 Census as required by the Constitution?
I think it’s quite clear there are a number of impediments to the 2020 Census that did not exist in previous Census counts.
First, in comparison to prior efforts, there’s inadequate investment by the Census Bureau in reaching hard-to-count communities.
Second, they intend for the first time to have households respond online, whether through a smart phone, laptop or desktop. That raises concerns about cyber security and access issues that didn’t apply before.
Even prior to the effort to add the citizenship question, the Census Bureau was seeing unprecedented levels of noncooperation with activities it engages in. Experts attribute that to the atmosphere of fear related to immigration enforcement created by the Trump administration.
Title 13, the U.S. law that governs the Census, protects the confidentiality of information given to the Census. Is that enough of a guarantee that people’s information will be secure?
Whether or not the citizenship question is there, people have to believe their data will remain confidential as it has by law for 72 years.
There are criminal penalties attached to violating confidentiality. Today, the federal law is very strong on this issue.
That said, we know that many people don’t trust this administration to follow the law, whatever it is, so MALDEF and other major advocacy organizations are forming a coalition to collectively commit, pledge, that if there’s any hint of a violation of census data, they will step in together, early on, to stop it.
The proposed citizenship question asks: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” Does it ask about the individual’s immigration status?
People should understand it’s a citizenship question only and there are several options for responding: A “no” response and several “yes” responses about how you became a citizen ꟷ whether you were born in the U.S., or were naturalized or whether your parents are citizens, etc. It’s simply a question about your citizenship and how it was obtained.
Do you think Congress should take more actions to ensure the success of the Census?
Congress should do a number of things but for political reasons it’s unlikely Congress will do anything. The simple fact is that the Latino community and other hard-to-count communities are not communities Donald Trump sees as belonging to his base. He has concluded that an undercount is in his own interest, so is opposed to a vigorous outreach effort.
Why is the 2020 Census so crucial?
The data it collects determines political power by reallocating seats in the House of Representatives and electoral college votes in presidential elections. If a particular state faces a significant undercount, it could lose representation. States use Census data to redraw their congressional districts, state legislature districts and local jurisdictions. If a particular community is undercounted, it will not be represented as it should be.
Furthermore, the federal government uses the data to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars worth of annual federal funding for programs that impact every neighborhood – from improving infrastructure to providing support for families and students. So it’s critically important that everyone fills out the Census and that we get as complete a count as possible, particularly for Latinos, because we’re a growing community and stand to benefit from accurate Census data.