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Civil Rights Groups Claim Victory, Vow to Fight On After Federal Judge Blocks Trump From Ending Census Early

"The Trump administration was attempting to fan the flames of racial division, further divide our country and exclude communities of color from the final enumeration."

U.S. Census workers stand outside Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on September 24, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

Civil rights advocates celebrated a victory Thursday night in their effort to ensure a fair and complete census count—but warned that the fight is not over—after a federal judge barred President Donald Trump's administration from ending the count on September 30, a month ahead of schedule.

Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction ordering the administration to honor the previous October 31 deadline for the once-a-decade count of every person in the United States, which is used to allocate federal funds for key community needs, to draw congressional districts, and the determine how much representation an area should have in the U.S. Congress.

The ruling also barred officials from delivering census data to the White House by December 31, a deadline that was proposed by the Trump administration in what critics said was an attempt to allow Trump to control the population number that will be used to determine representation in the U.S. House, even if he loses the general election in November.

"The court's decision repudiates the 11th hour actions of the Trump administration and makes clear that our democracy turns on achieving a full and fair count of all people across our nation."
—Kristen Clarke, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

"The court's decision ensures that our underrepresented and most vulnerable communities will not be disadvantaged by an unfair and incomplete census count," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represented a number of civil society organizations in the lawsuit against the administration. 

"With this directive, the Trump administration was attempting to fan the flames of racial division, further divide our country and exclude communities of color from the final enumeration," Clarke added. "The court's decision repudiates the 11th hour actions of the Trump administration and makes clear that our democracy turns on achieving a full and fair count of all people across our nation."

Critics say the shortened deadline would disproportionately affect people of color and low-income communities, who are already less likely than middle class and white communities to be counted in the census. 

"The decision by the Commerce Department to abruptly cut off counting would have dramatically compounded the historic issue of undercounting in Indian Country," said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, a plaintiff in the case. "I couldn't be more pleased that the court has put things back on track for a fairer and more accurate count, both for our tribe and for all tribes across the country."

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, wildfires across the West Coast, and the administration's July order barring census officials from including undocumented immigrants in their counts—a move that was blocked by a federal court in a ruling the Department of Justice plans to appeal—the Census Bureau reported this week that it has counted more than 96% of U.S. households, but its goal of reaching at least 99% by the deadline is in "great doubt," according to the New York Times, if the bureau is forced to observe a September 30 deadline. 

Koh's ruling follows reports of grave concerns about the census at the top levels of the bureau. 

"Any thinking person who would believe we can deliver apportionment by 12/31 has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation," Timothy Olson, Jr., head of census field operations, said in an email in July. An internal document that month warned of "fatal data flaws that are unacceptable for a constitutionally mandated national activity."

The Lawyers' Committee and other plaintiffs in the case expect Koh's ruling to be appealed by the DOJ, leading to continued "uncertainty for field ops" workers who are collecting census data, according to Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

"It's why Congress must still act," Gupta tweeted. 

The HEROES Act, the coronavirus relief bill passed by the House in May, included a proposal to push back the census deadline by four months in light of the pandemic, and called to boost the emergency budget for the U.S. Census Bureau by $400 million. The legislation has not received a vote in the Republican-led Senate. 

A bipartisan group of senators also proposed extending the deadline earlier this month.

"We will continue to fight the administration's attacks on the census, and we will continue working to make sure our communities are counted," tweeted immigrant rights group Make the Road New York on Friday. 

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