WASHINGTON - The Trump administration's decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census divided Capitol Hill on Tuesday, with Democrats saying the addition could skew the results and alter millions in government funding, while some Republicans praised it as a "commonsense" move.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced late Monday the next effort to count every resident in the country will include a question about citizenship status. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the survey every 10 years, with the next set for 2020. The deadline for finalizing the questions is Saturday.
WATCH: Census Citizenship Question Ignites Controversy
In a memo late Monday, Ross said he chose to include the query at the urging of the Department of Justice, which said it needed the citizenship data to better enforce a law protecting minority voting rights.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the addition of the question, rejecting the notion that it might result in less federal aid to immigrant communities in the U.S. if immigrants are undercounted.
Republicans on Capitol Hill welcomed the decision, which revives a practice that was abandoned in 1950, after being in place for more than 100 years, according to the Commerce Department.
"It is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable, given the wide-ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy. A question on citizenship is a reasonable, commonsense addition to the census," Senator Ted Cruz said in a statement Tuesday.
But Democrats said the question would have the opposite effect — discouraging undocumented immigrants and citizen family members from responding to the census, undermining the accuracy of the results.
"We cannot accept an incomplete or unfair count in 2020 — too much is at stake," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, co-chair of the Congressional Census Caucus, told VOA. "The census mandated by the [U.S.] Constitution affects the way that Federal and state funds are distributed and how district lines are drawn for both the city, state and Federal level."
Maloney introduced the IDEA Act last week, a bill that if passed would prevent any untested design changes to the U.S. Census that could jeopardize public participation.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called on Congress to pass Maloney’s legislation in a statement criticizing the administration’s decision.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the state would file a lawsuit challenging what he called an "illegal" move.
"Innocuous at first blush, its effect would be truly insidious," he wrote in a joint op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle with the California Secretary of State Alex Padilla.
"Actually, it is definitely not illegal to ask an illegal whether they are in the U.S. legally, but maybe the California AG will find himself an activist judge somewhere in the court system to agree with this ridiculous lawsuit," Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican from New York, tweeted in response to the California lawsuit.
But not all Republicans agree with that assertion. Retiring Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday, "I urge Administration to reconsider its decision to add citizenship question on #Census2020 because it will only serve to discourage folks from participating + won’t help our federal agencies distribute resources according to the needs of our communities."
Ross noted the concerns about lower response rates, including from the Census Bureau itself, but said his department's own review "found that limited empirical evidence exists about whether adding a citizenship question would decrease response rates materially."
The Census Bureau plans to allow people to respond to the survey on a paper form, through the internet or by telephone. When people do not respond, teams attempt to follow up with those households.
Ross noted more follow-ups may be needed if the response rate is lower, driving up the census cost. However, he added, "the need for accurate citizenship data" outweighs concerns about the potential for fewer responses.
VOA's Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.