(Adds legal groups reactions, U.S. attorney general quotes, context)
By Jeff Mason and David Shepardson
WASHINGTON, July 11 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump retreated on Thursday from adding a contentious question on citizenship to the 2020 census, but insisted he was not giving up his fight to count how many non-citizens are in the country and ordered government agencies to mine their databases.
Trump's plan to add the question to the census hit a roadblock two weeks ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against his administration, which had said new data on citizenship would help to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority rights.
The court ruled, in considering the litigation by challengers, that the rationale was "contrived." Critics of the effort said asking about citizenship in the census would discriminate against racial minorities and was aimed at giving Republicans an unfair advantage in elections by lowering the number of responses from people in areas more likely to vote Democratic.
Trump, a Republican, and his supporters say it makes sense to know how many non-citizens are living in the country.
"We will utilize these vast federal databases to gain a full, complete and accurate count of the non-citizen population, including databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. We have great knowledge in many of our agencies," Trump said in remarks in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday. "We will leave no stone unturned," he said.
Trump said he was not reversing course.
"We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population," he said.
But there could be more legal challenges ahead for the administration because the U.S. Constitution states that every person living in the country should be counted to determine state-by-state representation in Congress and that is done every 10 years in the Census, not by other means.
"We will vigorously challenge any attempt to leverage census data for unconstitutional redistricting methods," said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute at the NYU School of Law.
Waldman said his group would also challenge "any administration move to violate the clear and strong rules protecting the privacy of everyone's responses, including the rules barring the use of personal census data to conduct law or immigration enforcement activities."
Trump, who has made hard-line policies on immigration a feature of his presidency and his campaign for re-election in 2020, said he was ordering every government agency to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens. The U.S. Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.
"That information will be useful for countless purposes, as the president explained in his remarks today," U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.
Barr cited a legal dispute on whether illegal immigrants can be included for determining apportionment of congressional districts. "Depending on the resolution of that dispute, this data may possibly prove relevant. We will be studying the issue."
The approach announced by Trump on Thursday was similar to the one proposed by a Census Bureau official to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, according to a memorandum made public by congressional Democrats in 2018. It said the costs of adding a citizenship question to the Census would be high, but using existing administrative records would not.
Opponents called Thursday's decision a defeat for the administration, but promised they would look closely to determine the legality of Trump's new plan to compile and use citizenship data outside of the census.
Rights groups in citizenship-question lawsuits in federal courts in New York and Maryland have no plans to abandon the litigation, Sarah Brannon of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, and John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said on a conference call with reporters.
They also see potential for future litigation over the Trump administration's collection of data, as well as how those data are used in state redistricting.
"We will sue as necessary," Brannon said.
The Census is also used to distribute some $800 billion in federal services, including public schools, Medicaid benefits, law enforcement and highway repairs.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Shepardson; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu, Makini Brice and Eric Beech in Washington and Andrew Chung and Lauren LaCapra in New York; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)
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