Md. Joins Suit Seeking to Block Trump’s Latest Census Maneuver

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Oversight and Reform Committee last year. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Earlier this week, when the Trump administration announced it would not count undocumented immigrants for the purposes of congressional reapportionment following completion of 2020 U.S. Census, Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery), who has worked to maximize the Census count in Maryland, expressed confidence that the measure would not hold up in court.

“There will obviously be a lot of lawsuits,” she said in an interview. “So I feel pretty confident that the courts will shoot this down.”

On Friday, the first lawsuits came.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) announced on Friday evening that the state had joined a federal lawsuit led by the state of New York to stop the Trump administration’s Census maneuver and ensure the administration counts the “whole number of persons” residing in the country for apportionment, as the U.S. Constitution requires.

“The Trump administration’s attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census is blatantly unconstitutional, and is clearly motivated by animus toward our immigrant communities,” Frosh said in a statement.

The Trump administration’s announcement comes as the efforts to collect Census data have been hampered somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic and political unrest in the country. As federal aid is tied to the Census account, Trump critics believe the president’s move is designed to punish states, counties and municipalities with large immigrant populations.

“This is yet another attack by Trump to fire up his ever-shrinking base as he continues his attacks on immigrants and people of color,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc B. Elrich (D).

The Constitution states that for the purposes of apportioning members of the House of Representatives among the states, every person residing in the U.S. during the Census, regardless of legal status, must be counted. President Trump declared Tuesday that he intends to exclude undocumented immigrants from the apportionment base – the first time that’s happened in U.S. history.

This is not the first time the Trump administration has sought to exclude undocumented immigrants from the Census count. In 2018, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross directed the Census Bureau to demand information on the citizenship status of every resident in the country. After a legal battle that made its way through multiple federal courts last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, including Maryland, and prohibited the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the census.

Friday’s lawsuit, filed against Trump, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Census Bureau, Ross, and Census Director Steven Dillingham, was joined by 21 attorneys general, nine cities, four counties, and one combined city and county. In it, the coalition argues that apportionment based on a population count that unlawfully excludes undocumented immigrants will:

  • Lead to the loss of congressional seats and presidential electors in the Electoral College;
  • Skew the division of electoral districts within jurisdictions by impairing state and local redistricting efforts that rely on the census count;
  • Reduce federal funds to state and local jurisdictions by deterring immigrants from responding to the decennial census that is currently underway; and
  • Degrade the quality of census data that states and local jurisdictions rely on to perform critical governmental functions. 

The Maryland Department of Planning, which is coordinating the Census count in the state, reported Friday that Maryland’s self-response rate to the 2020 Census is 66.3%, well ahead of the national average of 62.4%. Maryland ranks 12th in the U.S. in residents responding to the Census.

Carroll County leads the state with a 78% response rate, followed by Howard County (76.1%) and Harford County (74.4%). The lowest response rates are in Somerset County (51.7%) and Baltimore City (52.3%).

In an email to Maryland Matters this week, Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), said the Trump administration announcement on not counting undocumented immigrants “will certainly not have any impact on the way we will continue to go about encouraging people to take the Census.”

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.