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Washington state plans to sue Trump administration over U.S. Census citizenship question

SEATTLE -- Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and officials in at least 11 other states said they plan to sue the Trump administration over a question on the 2020 U.S. Census: Are you a citizen?

This week, the Commerce Department reinstated that question on the decennial census, which aims to count every person in the country every 10 years.

The move comes at the request of the Justice Department, first made in the early days of the administration, saying it was needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Ferguson and officials in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island said they plan to sue in a multistate effort. The state of California filed a separate lawsuit Monday.

Questions of citizenship appeared pretty regularly in the decennial census through 1950, as evidenced by sifting through the stacks of University of Washington's Suzzallo Library, where you can find census data dating back to 1790.

U.S. documents librarian Cassandra Hartnett said the types of questions the government asks are a window into history.

"The questions have really varied quite a bit over the years and it's a little bit of a way of seeing the concerns of the time as to the questions that were asked," Hartnett explained.

It makes her question why the Trump administration is choosing to add a question of citizenship after a 70-year gap.

"You can't help but be an armchair sociologist and wonder what it is that's driving this question now," she said.

Whatever the reason, Washington's attorney general believes it'll have a negative impact on the state.

"We live in a time where folks may be concerned who may not be here legally, or know someone who may not be here legally, and have concerns about sharing information with the federal government," Ferguson told Q13 News.

The decennial census is a head count of every person in the country, regardless of citizenship. It determines how federal funds are allocated to each state, from highways to Head Start programs. It's even used to redraw congressional districts.

While the Commerce Department is saying the citizenship question is needed for enforcing the Voting Rights Act, Ferguson worries that if it drives down participation in the state, Washingtonians will miss out on crucial government funds. That's why he's suing.

"I wouldn't be filing this lawsuit unless I felt confident that we'd have a positive outcome," he said.

As for Hartnett, the only outcome she cares about with the census is a 100 percent response rate.

There is a yearly census called the American Community Survey that goes out to a small number of the population every year. That survey does ask citizenship questions and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross maintains the questions do not suppress participation.