The Trump administration is scrambling to offer a new, legally defensible rationale for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. But it’s all a charade ordered up by President Donald Trump, who is determined to enlist the decennial census in his crusade against people living in the country illegally. Lower federal courts across the country have properly refused to play along; the Supreme Court should belatedly do the same.

Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March 2018 that the government was amending the census form to ask about citizenship status. He was sued almost immediately by a number of immigrant-heavy cities and states, which argued that the change would deter some immigrants — and especially those living here illegally — from responding.

The resulting undercount would shift political power and resources away from communities with large immigrant populations, which tend to vote for Democrats. But Ross insisted that the administration’s motives were pure; the idea for the question, he said, came from the Justice Department, which supposedly sought the data to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act.

After lower federal courts blocked the citizenship question, the case made its way to a divided Supreme Court. The majority held that Ross’ explanation wasn’t credible, although the justices gave him the chance to offer one that was.

The administration has been operating from a disingenuous premise from the start. It strains credulity to think that Trump would be eager to bring more Voting Rights lawsuits against cities and states that are suppressing minorities’ right to vote; after all, he appointed an election fraud commission that seemed to exist mainly to justify more vote suppression.

The evidence offers a much more believable explanation: Adding a citizenship question would deter non-citizens (or the citizens whose households they share) from responding to the census, leading to an undercount — especially in Latino communities, which tend to be dominated by Democrats.

But the administration can hardly afford to admit as much in court. It would mean confessing that the Commerce Department was trying not just to make the census less accurate — the Constitution requires a count of “every” person, citizen or not — but also to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity. (And remember, legal residents would be harmed by a census undercount too, as their communities lose federal funding and representation in Congress.)

That leaves the administration with only one realistic option: to come up with a new lie about its rationale. While four of his conservative justices might not have a problem with that, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seems to recognize that letting administrations blatantly deceive the public about the purpose of their actions would give free rein to the basest impulses of the worst presidents.

This case shouldn’t have reached this point. The constitutional purpose of the census is clear, and the administration should fulfill it.

Editorial by the Los Angeles Times

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