- Ari Bermansenior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
We look at a federal trial underway in New York City that could overturn the Trump administration’s plans to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Voting rights activists fear the question will deter immigrants from participating in the census, leading to a vast undercount in states with large immigrant communities. This could impact everything from the redrawing of congressional maps to the allocation of federal funding. The citizenship question was announced in March by U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who touted it as a way to enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect minorities against voter discrimination. But on Sunday evening, the plaintiffs released a deposition that seems to contradict the Trump administration’s stated purpose for adding the citizenship question to the census. We speak with reporter Ari Berman, who has been following the case and says, “The fix was in from the very beginning. This was done by Kris Kobach, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions—the most anti-immigrant figures in the Republican Party.” Berman’s newest story is headlined “Trial over Census Citizenship Question Kicks Off Amid Revelation of Trump Administration Deception.”
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, Ari, I want to turn to this battle brewing over the 2020 U.S. census. On Monday, a federal trial began in New York City over challenges to the Trump administration’s decision to put a citizenship question on the census. Voting rights activists fear the question will deter immigrants from participating in the census, leading to a vast undercount in states with large immigrant communities, which could impact everything from redrawing of congressional maps to the allocation of federal funding. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with 17 states, is challenging the addition of the citizenship question. On Monday, the plaintiffs called their first expert witness, Duke University political scientist Sunshine Hillygus, who testified that “the citizenship question will depress participation among noncitizens and Hispanics.”
The citizenship question was announced in March by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who touted it as a way to enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect minorities against voter discrimination. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said then that it was “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters.”
PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The purpose is to determine individuals that are here. It also helps to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
AMY GOODMAN: However, on Sunday evening, the plaintiffs released a deposition that seems to contradict the Trump administration’s stated purpose for adding the citizenship question to the census. The deposition from John Gore, the former assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, acknowledged the citizenship question was, quote, “not necessary” to enforce the Voting Rights Act. So far, at least five former directors of the Census Bureau, who served under Republican and Democratic presidents, have written a letter opposing the citizenship question.
Ari Berman, you were in court yesterday, a senior writer at Mother Jones magazine, here in New York, talk about the significance of all of this.
ARI BERMAN: It’s a huge case for democracy. The census is basically the DNA of our democracy. It determines so many things that we do, from how $675 billion in federal funding is distributed to how political districts are drawn to how many electoral votes states get. And if the census is rigged, then all of American democracy will be rigged, as well.
And this question about U.S. citizenship, which has not been asked since 1950, could have a massively suppressive effect on participation among noncitizens, among citizens, among Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, other minority groups. If that happens, what that means is that areas with lots of immigrants, like New York and California and Texas, will get less political power, will have fewer political seats. So it’s really, really important for the fairness of the census. That’s why the citizenship question is being challenged.
And the Trump administration’s rationale—this was done to enforce the Voting Rights Act—is such a farce, Amy. This question about citizenship hasn’t been asked since 1950. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. So you’ve never needed a citizenship question to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Trump administration hasn’t filed a single lawsuit to enforce the Voting Rights Act, so it’s completely laughable they need this to enforce the Voting Rights Act. And then we got smoking gun evidence on Sunday night where the head of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division said it’s—
AMY GOODMAN: This is under Trump.
ARI BERMAN: Under Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: John Gore.
ARI BERMAN: Said it’s not necessary to enforce Voting Rights Act. And he was told by Jeff Sessions, one of the most anti-immigrant people in the administration, not to meet with the Census Bureau to discuss this. So the fix was in from the very beginning. This was done by Kris Kobach, Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions. The most anti-immigrant figures in the Republican Party wanted this citizenship question on the census.
AMY GOODMAN: Kobach who’s running in Kansas.
ARI BERMAN: Kobach who’s running for governor in Kansas, who is chair—was chair of the, quote-unquote, “election integrity commission,” wrote anti-immigrant laws all across the country. Steve Bannon told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, who oversees the census, “Talk to Kris Kobach about adding the citizenship question.” So it started with Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, and Kris Kobach, the architect of anti-immigration and voter suppression laws. Then they talked to Jeff Sessions—completely long record of anti-immigrant sentiment. That’s how this question got on the census.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the Supreme Court decision this week around whether Wilbur Ross could be deposed?
ARI BERMAN: So, the Supreme Court said that Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, doesn’t have to be deposed. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Is this one of the first decisions of Judge Kavanaugh?
ARI BERMAN: Yes, but it was just a procedural decision, so we can’t read too much into it. But they did say that John Gore had to testify. His deposition was very revealing. A lot of documents have been released undercutting what the Trump administration said. This had nothing to do with enforcing the Voting Rights Act, Amy. This is all about suppressing participation from immigrants so that areas with lots of immigrants have less representation and less political power. And the census will shift political power for the GOP instead of being a fair and accurate document of all Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, I want to thank you so much for being with us, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation Institute, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. We’ll link to your latest piece, “Trial Over Census Citizenship Question Kicks Off Amid Revelation of Trump Administration Deception.” Ari, I’ll see you in, well, not so long from now, when we do that 6-hour special.
This is Democracy Now! Coming up on this show, we’re going to be looking at a record-setting ballot initiative in Colorado. We’ll be talking about oil and gas and fracking. We’ll be talking with Aimee Allison in Georgia, head of Democracy in Color and She the People, about women running in elections all over this country. And finally, Amendment 4 in Florida, if passed today, could mean the enfranchisement of more people in this country than ever—well, except—no, just a century ago, when women got the right to vote. Stay with us.