Every 10 years, the census is conducted to give an official count of people living in the United States, regardless of their citizenship status. Its numbers are then used to determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives, state funding, and more. But this year, President Trump pushed to leave undocumented immigrants out of the count. His plan made it all the way to the highest court in the country — but on Monday, the Supreme Court declined to rule on excluding undocumented immigrants from the census.
In July, Trump first released his memorandum calling to leave undocumented immigrants out of the census following a failed 2019 proposal to add a question about citizenship to the survey forms. Throughout the memorandum, Trump referred to undocumented people as "illegal aliens" — which is widely considered to be dehumanizing language — and said that "increasing congressional representation based on the presence of [undocumented immigrants] who are not in a lawful immigration status would also create perverse incentives encouraging violations of federal law."
Trump's gambit was immediately met with pushback. Just a few days after the memorandum's release, the state of California sued the Trump administration, with Attorney General Xavier Becerra saying, "This latest attack on the census is just that — it’s unlawful. President Trump still believes he can sidestep the U.S. Constitution. A complete, accurate census count is critical to ensure we get the congressional representation and resources we have a right to."
The Supreme Court began hearing arguments on whether or not to allow Trump to exclude undocumented people from the census in November. At the time, acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall told the justices, "Career experts at the Census Bureau confirmed with me that they still don't know even roughly how many illegal aliens it'll be able to identify, let alone how their number and geographic concentration might affect apportionment."
It seems that this unknown variable is exactly why the Supreme Court refused to give a ruling. This is a blow for the Trump administration, which wanted an answer before the president must submit a report to Congress in early January. If Trump's plan was enacted, he would've been able to produce two reports — one that included everyone, and a second that left out undocumented people. The smaller number would be used for assigning House seats.
While the Census Bureau couldn't determine how exactly House seats would change if Trump got his way, the Pew Research Center put together an estimate in July. Per its findings, California, Florida, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, and other states would lose one seat each. Meanwhile, Minnesota, Ohio, and Alabama — which sued to exclude undocumented immigrants from its population count in 2018 — would retain seats they otherwise would have lost.
Trump also claimed that the Constitution "does not specifically define which persons must be included in the appointment base." However, the government's own history of the census says it was a "bold and ambitious plan" to "count every person" living in the U.S. as a way to empower the people.
Unfortunately, there may have been damage done to the decennial count anyway. While the count began on time, the coronavirus pandemic caused significant delays after field operations were suspended in March. Then, in October, the Supreme Court let the Trump administration stop the count early. NBC News reported that the Commerce Department asked Congress for a four-month delay in putting together results, but the request didn't go anywhere.
The Supreme Court's October decision blocked an order from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the government needed to continue with its field work until Oct. 31 to increase the count's accuracy. NBC News reported that Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, writing at the time that "the harms caused by rushing this year's census count are irreparable" and that those who wanted the count to keep going "will suffer their lasting impact for the next 10 years."