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Activists gathered at the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ahead of an anticipated decision regarding the use of a so-called citizenship question on the 2020 census.EXPAND
Activists gathered at the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ahead of an anticipated decision regarding the use of a so-called citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Mark Wilson / Getty Images

John Roberts Saved* Texas from Itself on Thursday

In the end, it wasn't a definitive or even particularly clear statement, but it might have been just enough from the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, John Roberts. Joining with court's four liberals, Roberts wrote that the Trump administration's efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census were, at least so far, unconstitutional. Barring unprecedented steps from President Donald Trump, Roberts' break with conservatives who pushed for the addition of the question will save Texas millions of dollars.

According to activists and analysts across the state, requiring those taking the census to report their citizenship status would've led to a large undercount of the state's Hispanic population. For every 1% of Texas residents who don't make it onto census rolls, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, the state faces the loss of $291 million in federal funding that would otherwise go to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start preschool and the Children's Health Insurance Program, as well as things like highways and parks. Undercounting also could affect Texas' congressional representation.

“A xenophobic, unnecessary, ill-timed citizenship question would threaten the accuracy of the 2020 census, which Texans rely on for political representation, federal funding and more," Ann Beeson, the center's CEO, said Thursday. "In the meantime, CPPP and our allies will continue working overtime to make sure every Texan gets counted in the 2020 census. We will continue to fight for the representation and resources our communities deserve.”

Throughout the federal court fight over the potential inclusion of a citizenship question, U.S. Department of Justice lawyers have argued that the question is actually intended to help the federal government live up to the Voting Rights Act, not to scare Hispanics away from presenting themselves to be counted, something that would benefit Republicans, especially in states, like Texas, that have large Hispanic populations.

Roberts called that argument a pretext, given the evidence that the Trump administration's push for the question was politically motivated.

“We are presented, in other words, with an explanation for agency action that is incongruent with what the record reveals about the agency’s priorities and decision-making process,” Roberts wrote.

In response to Roberts' opinion, the Justice Department didn't signal whether it would develop another rationale to continue to push for the question's inclusion on the 2020 census, or leave the potential fight to those putting together the next census in 10 years.

"We are disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision today," spokeswoman Kelly Laco said. "The Department of Justice will continue to defend this administration's lawful exercises of executive power."

On Twitter, the president suggested that he might be willing to delay the census to push for the citizenship question.

Despite Trump's hinting that the fight isn't over, Texas Democrats celebrated the potential for a fairer count.

"Real lives are at stake, and when the census is wrong, then our government shortchanges communities on critical resources like health care, infrastructure and education. We cannot risk that," Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “Texas is changing. There are more diverse communities now than ever. We applaud the hard work of advocacy organizations that are ensuring complete and accurate participation in the census. Today is a victory for all of us.”

There are more than 400,000 Dallas County residents on Medicaid, including more than 300,000 children. Fifty-one thousand more kids are covered by CHIP. The federal government picks up 58% of the cost of insuring Medicaid patients and 93% of the cost of insuring children on CHIP, but if fewer people who live in Texas answer their census questionnaires, the state will receive even less of the money than it should.

"A census undercount means those kids would still be eligible. They would still qualify for assistance for health care, but the state would have to come up with more and more money for its end of the cost," Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the CPPP, told the Observer as the feds were first considering the citizenship question last year.

Despite the potential financial disaster a citizenship question could've caused for Texas' state budget, the Legislature did nothing to mitigate the potential damage and ensure a more accurate count during the recently concluded 2019 session. Sen. Ted Cruz and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton both actively campaigned for the citizenship question, despite the harm it would cause their constituents.

With Thursday's decision, Roberts bailed out Texas' budget and its Republican Party. If Trump decides to keep on fighting, however, all bets are off.

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