AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Trump is backing down on his effort to get a controversial citizenship question added to the 2020 census. His administration has been fighting in court for more than a year to get the question on. Trump also issued an executive order that he says will improve sharing of citizenship data between agencies.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens in our country. They must furnish all legally accessible records in their possession immediately.
CORNISH: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census. He's been following this effort from the beginning. And, Hansi, give us more detail on the president's announcement tonight.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, he's essentially dropping this fight to get this question - the citizenship question onto the 2020 census, saying that it would have delayed the census. And because of essentially logistical hurdles - this is also U.S. Attorney General William Barr speaking - that that's why they're no longer trying to push this through the courts. But he is going to issue this executive order, which - I've been covering this for more than a year now.
I don't hear anything new in this executive order because if you actually were to go back into Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's decision to add this question, he also instructed the Commerce Department - the Census Bureau, rather, to compile existing government records from the Social Security Administration, from State Department, from Department of Homeland Security. And these are records the Census Bureau says would be more accurate and less expensive to collect than self-reported responses to a citizenship question.
And the Census Bureau officials, they actually said back in May, just a few months ago, that they've already compiled those records and were waiting for the commerce secretary to give them the go-ahead to release them eventually. So this sounds like the president is backing down and trying to do it in a way that seems like he's not going down in the fight.
CORNISH: Right. Essentially, I mean, you're seeing agencies already share data about citizenship?
WANG: I'm saying that there are special agreements that the Census Bureau has already entered into to get those - get this data from the Social Security Administration and from the Department of Homeland Security. That's already happened. This isn't new. And all the Census Bureau is waiting for - has been waiting for is guidance from the commerce secretary of what to do with this data that he directed them to compile.
CORNISH: President Trump and the Department of Justice have been saying that they would keep trying to get the question on. Is there a sense of what changed here in terms of the legal approach?
WANG: Well, we have to remember that the Supreme Court ruled that the initial stated reason that the administration gave for this question, they found that it appeared to have been contrived, that it was supposedly - it was to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. A majority of the justices did not buy that explanation and said that technically the Trump administration could go back to court and try to make another case for this question by giving another reason.
But there are major logistical hurdles. Just last week, the Justice Department and Commerce Department officials confirmed that the printing has already started for paper forms for the census without the citizenship question. There are 1.5 billion pieces of paper including these forms that need to get printed. And time is running out. The 2020 census is set to officially start in January. Any changes at this point to the census questionnaire could derail this constitutionally mandated headcount.
CORNISH: And what happens next?
WANG: It's a really big question, I guess. I think the biggest question here is with all this controversy and all this attention on the citizenship question that ultimately will not appear on these forms, how will this impact how households with non-citizens, immigrant communities, communities of color who have heightened fears about the census in general, how will they process all this? And will the Census Bureau, as well as other community groups, will they be able to get full participation from the public with this administration which has brought so much controversy around the census?
CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks for your reporting.
WANG: You're welcome.