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Texans Fighting Citizenship Question On 2020 Census Are Headed To Court. Here's What You Need To Know.

Emily Albracht for The Texas Tribune

By Alexa Ura, Texas Tribune

Opponents of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census won big last week when a New York-based federal judge ordered the Trump administration to remove the controversial question from the once-a-decade count.

Now, a group of Texans is hoping to set the stage for a second victory.

In a federal courtroom in Maryland on Tuesday, lawyers representing the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Senate Hispanic Caucus and several Texas-based nonprofits that advocate for Latino and Asian residents will set out to convince U.S. District Judge George Hazel that the federal government’s decision to ask about citizenship status as part of the upcoming census is improper, because it will lead to a disproportionate undercount of immigrants and people of color.

The Texas legal battle has run mostly parallel to several other court fights across the country — and might not be decided before the New York case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court — but it’s the only census case that could ultimately determine whether Trump administration officials conspired to deprive people of color of equal protection and representation.

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Here’s a primer on the case involving the group of Texans and what the New York ruling means for the legal fight:

What’s the Texas case about?

What we’re referring to as the "Texas case" is actually two consolidated cases filed in Maryland — one of which was filed on behalf of more than a dozen plaintiffs, including Texas’ legislative Latino caucuses; legislative caucuses out of Maryland, Arizona and California; and several community organizations. La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a nonprofit organization based in the Rio Grande Valley, is the lead plaintiff.

Those plaintiffs are challenging the inclusion of the citizenship question on several fronts, alleging it violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, the Enumeration Clause and a federal law that governs federal agencies and their decision-making processes.

More broadly, they argue the citizenship question will lead to a disproportionate undercount of Hispanic and immigrant households, affecting areas of the country like Texas that are more likely to be home to members of those communities, and that officials' decision to add the question was unconstitutional because it was based on intentional racial discrimination. They go further than other opponents in also alleging that Trump administration officials conspired to add the question to the 2020 questionnaire based on animus against Hispanics and immigrants, particularly when it comes to counting immigrants for the apportionment of political districts.

The federal government, which has been unsuccessful in its repeated requests to dismiss the case, has argued the question is necessary for “more effective enforcement” of the federal Voting Rights Act and was added at the Justice Department's request. But evidence that emerged through litigation indicated U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked the Justice Department to make that request after he was in touch with advisers to President Donald Trump.

What about the ruling against the federal government in the New York case?

The trial in Maryland comes on the heels of a major ruling in another census lawsuitout of New York, where a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 questionnaire.

In the New York case, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman scolded the Trump administration for “egregious” violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, the federal law the Texas plaintiffs are also citing, and described Ross’ decision to add the question as “arbitrary and capricious.” Furman, however, ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Ross had intentionally acted to discriminate againstimmigrants and people of color.

The Texas case is moving forward despite the New York ruling because it involves allegations that the courts haven't addressed. The New York lawsuit — filed on behalf of a coalition of more than 30 states, cities and counties, including El Paso, Hidalgo and Cameron — didn't include some of the legal claims opponents in Texas are leaning on.

Experts have said the New York ruling could influence ongoing census battles by helping to guide judges working through the issues in other cases. At a minimum, the New York ruling could interrupt the timeline of those other cases. The Justice Department has appealed the ruling, and the case could ultimately go to the Supreme Court.

All eyes are on the clock. Census Bureau officials have indicated they need to finalize the questionnaire this summer as they prepare materials for the 2020 headcount.

What’s at stake for Texas?

The electoral and financial future of the state are tied to an accurate census, which determines everything from political boundaries to how much funding the state gets from the federal government. But demographers and experts have warned that the inclusion of the citizenship question would depress response ratesamong Texas immigrants and their families, even if they’re authorized to live in the country.

In the New York ruling, Furman wrote that the evidence presented by the Trump administration itself confirmed that including the citizenship question would result “in a significant reduction” in responses by Hispanic and immigrant households.

An undercount in Texas, which has long been considered a hard-to-count state, would be deeply detrimental to Texans' political clout.

Census data is used to determine how many representatives Texas is entitled to elect to Congress. It dictates how many electoral votes are assigned to the state. And the Texas Legislature and local governments rely on the data to adjust corresponding political boundaries.

An undercount in Texas could jeopardize one or more of the three congressional seats the state is projected to gain because of population growth.

The census also serves as a roadmap for the distribution of billions of federal dollars to the state and to local communities, including funding for low-income housing, medical assistance and transportation projects. But Texas leaders could end up with fewer funds to pay for the needs of a growing population if they’re not all accounted for in the formulas used to dole out that money.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.