WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump backed down on Thursday from a push to force a controversial question on citizenship onto the 2020 census following a backlash by civil rights campaigners.
Critics said the administration wanted to add the question to suppress participation by immigrant communities in the once-a-decade survey that helps officials determine where to allocate federal resources.
"We are pursuing a new option to ensure a complete and timely count of the non-citizen population," the president told a news conference at the White House.
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court seemingly ended a legal and political battle over the issue. It concluded that the Trump administration's stated reasons for including the question were "contrived," and blocked the move.
Stung by the conservative-majority high court's 5-4 decision, Trump raised the possibility of forcing the issue with an executive order, or even postponing the census.
The stakes are immense: the census helps determine the disbursement of $675 billion in federal subsidies and the number of seats in the US House of Representatives allocated to each state.
A question on citizenship, which was dropped more than 60 years ago, could stop between 1.6 and 6.5 million immigrants from participating or answering truthfully, according to census officials.
Immigrants living in the country illegally would especially be reticent, out of fear that they would be identified for deportation.
As he announced the U-turn, Trump said he would sign an executive order requiring federal agencies to provide the Commerce Department with immigration information from their existing databases.
"It is essential that we have a clear breakdown of the number of citizens and non-citizens that make up the US population. Imperative," he said.
Rights groups and Democrats hailed Trump's climb-down.
"President @realDonaldTrump's census defeat is a significant victory for democracy and fair representation. Every person must be counted, and no one should be intimidated by the president and his capricious behaviour," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Twitter.
"His retreat on adding the misguided citizen question to the census was long overdue."
The American Civil Liberties Union added that it will continue to monitor the Trump administration's efforts to count immigrants.
"When the details of Trump's new plan to compile citizenship data outside of the census come out -- and his plans for using that data -- we will scrutinise them closely and assess their legality." — AFP