By Ari Berman for MotherJones

The 2020 census will include a question about US citizenship for the first time since 1950, the Commerce Department announced Monday night. Civil rights groups say the question will massively depress responses from immigrants fearful of deportation and could sabotage the entire census.

The move sets up a huge legal and political battle over one of the most important tasks mandated by the Constitution. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and former US Attorney General Eric Holder have already announced their intention to sue the Trump administration over the new question. Democratic members of Congress have also said they will introduce legislation to block the new question.

The Justice Department requested the citizenship question in December, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wrote in a letter on Monday that it was needed for “more effective enforcement” of the Voting Rights Act. (The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau.)

But Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, told me, “Voting rights enforcement has never depended on having that question on the [census] form since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act. That’s plainly a ruse to collect that data and ultimately to sabotage the census.” The citizenship question, she noted, is already asked on the longer American Community Survey, which reaches roughly 13 percent of American households and is used to enforce civil rights laws.

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