“A naked attempt to politicize the census, with the goal of suppressing minority participation.”
The Trump administration’s decision to add a controversial question on citizenship status to the 2020 Census questionnaire is its latest attack on immigrant communities—a far-reaching power grab disguised as a technicality.
Legal advocates for Latinos and communities of color are seeing it as a declaration of domestic political war.
“MALDEF calls for the immediate resignation of [Commerce Secretary] Wilbur Ross,” said Thomas A. Saenz, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund president and general counsel. “His acquiescence in this political maneuver demonstrates his thorough incompetence to serve as Commerce Secretary. His apparent lack of even basic integrity has created a constitutional violation of unprecedented potential impact.”
“President Trump’s latest attempt to suppress the political influence of people of color under the guise of voter protection is beyond the pale,” said Cristóbal J. Alex, president of Latino Victory Project. “The inclusion of a citizenship question in the census is meant to instill fear and discourage undocumented taxpayers and mixed-status families from participating, ensuring that these communities receive fewer resources and that congressional districts are redrawn in favor of Republicans.”
“Secretary Ross is wrong,” said Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “If this were any other administration, the inclusion of a citizenship status question would likely seem benign. However, the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed xenophobic and racist policies—and its handling of the Census appears to be no different. It is intentionally politicizing the decennial Census by using it as a tool to intimidate undocumented immigrants from completing the questionnaire, siphon government resources from communities of color, and undermine the assurance of congressional representation.”
These statements from leading civil rights advocates are the tip of a larger storm surrounding the 2020 Census, the next once-a-decade detailed survey of all American residents. Census results are used as a baseline for political representation via drawing federal and state electoral lines; for spending of government resources at every level via population counts and other demographic details; and by academia and the private sector, which track innumerable trends for research and investment decisions.
“This attack on the Latino community will most assuredly backfire,” said MALDEF’s Saenz. “The Latino community will be counted, at the Census and at the polls. Our community’s defiance of Donald Trump’s consistent attempts to whitewash Latinos out of our country’s governance and civic sector will be strong and vibrant.”
Already, the state of California has filed a suit challenging the inclusion of the citizenship question. In a commentary in the San Francisco Chronicle, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla explained that undercounting the state’s immigrant population could result in losing one congressional seat and other federal government subsidies.
“The Constitution requires the government to conduct an ‘actual enumeration’ of the total population, regardless of citizenship status. And since 1790, the census has counted citizens and noncitizens alike,” they wrote. “California, with its large immigrant communities, would be disproportionately harmed by depressed participation in the 2020 census. An undercount would threaten at least one of California’s seats in the House of Representatives (and by extension, an elector in the electoral college). It would deprive California and its cities and counties of their fair share of billions of dollars in federal funds.”
The California officials were clear: This is not a technical decision but a Republican power grab orchestrated by the White House.
“This request is an extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes,” they wrote. “Since the first day of his presidential campaign and through his first year in office, President Trump has targeted immigrants: vilifying them and attempting to exclude them from the country. Think travel bans, repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, ramped up Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that tear parents away from their children. Immigrants and their loved ones understandably are, and will be, concerned about how data collected in the 2020 Census will be used.”
Trump Administration Posturing
Asking about citizenship status revives a practice not used by the Census since the 1950s, various academics have noted. The Trump administration’s rationale is that the question will help the Department of Justice to better enforce the section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act defending minority rights. Ross explained all this in a lengthy memo in which he concludes the citizenship question would not significantly reduce the response rate.
“I have carefully considered the argument that the reinstatement of the citizenship question on the decennial census would depress response rate,” Ross wrote. “I find that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate. Importantly, the Department’s review found that limited empirical evidence exists about whether adding a citizenship question would decrease response rates materially. Concerns about decreased response rates generally fell into the following two categories: distrust of government and increased burden.”
Ross then addressed his critics’ fears, focusing on immigrant advocates:
First, stakeholders, particularly those who represented immigrant constituencies, noted that members of their respective communities generally distrusted the government and especially distrusted efforts by government agencies to obtain information about them. Stakeholders from California referenced the difficulty that government agencies faced obtaining any information from immigrants as part of the relief efforts after the California wildfires. These government agencies were not seeking to ascertain the citizenship status of these wildfire victims. Other stakeholders referenced the political climate generally and fears that Census responses could be used for law enforcement purposes. But no one provided evidence that reinstating a citizenship question on the decennial census would materially decrease response rates among those who generally distrusted government and government information collection efforts, disliked the current administration, or feared law enforcement. Rather, stakeholders merely identified residents who made the decision not to participate regardless of whether the census includes a citizenship question. The reinstatement of a citizenship question will not decrease the response rate of residents who already decided not to respond.”
Ross and the Trump administration would like the public to believe that the controversy surrounding the question about citizenship status is much ado about nothing. But those communities on the receiving end of Trump’s actions know that is untrue. Voting rights groups have seen Trump’s Justice Department switch sides in court—compared to the stances taken under the Obama administration—to fight for voter repression laws in Texas, for just one example. For Ross to claim the DOJ is requesting this question be included under the guise of defending minority voting rights is galling, they say, because this administration’s tendency in court has been to suppress greater electoral participation.
“The reality is that this Justice Department has been hostile to safeguarding minority voting rights. The truth is that this a naked attempt to politicize the census, with the goal of suppressing minority participation,” said Kristen Clarke, National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president and executive director. “The decision to include a citizenship question rides on the coattails of xenophobic and anti-immigrant policy positions that have continued to emerge from this administration. This attempt to silence minorities, under the guise of protecting the Voting Rights Act, is mere pretext to mask the discriminatory motives underlying this move.”
And there are yet more reasons to distrust the administration. Until the 2018 federal budget was adopted, the GOP leadership in Washington proposed underfunding the 2020 Census. That caused critics, especially academics who rely on the Census for research, to protest it would lead to an undercount, which could cause many problems outside the electoral sphere.
“While Republicans may seek to reap political benefits from an undercount of noncitizen populations, this is a short-term political gain for long-term public policy harm,” tweeted Michael McDonald, a University of Florida demographer and voter turnout expert.
“Some non-political uses for census data that are put at risk: identifying disease outbreaks; knowing where best to allocate police force; knowing where to locate a new business in a growing population area and so on,” he continued. “E.g., because the denominator of the disease rate is incorrect, government might rush aid to an affected noncitizen community that has an artificially high rate due to fewer census responses, thereby wasting resources while the real outbreak in a citizen community is ignored… Corporations and government will underestimate population growth in noncitizen communities. Fewer private and public services will be deployed, leading to fewer opportunities (creating an environment for more crime), less education (creating more poverty for citizen children), etc.”
This controversy next moves to federal court, because it is unlikely the Trump administration will reverse its decision, even though four former Census directors, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations, have warned in legal briefs that asking about citizenship will undermine the count. But this decision is clearly about politics and preserving GOP political power, which has always been the Republican Party’s goal.
Nationally, Republicans are the party that seeks to restrict access to the voting process—always under the guise of protecting the sanctity of the vote. As a 2014 Pew Research Center study found, 20 metropolitan areas contain the majority of the nation’s undocumented residents and they are almost always Democratic-majority urban areas.
The math behind the political calculus is easy: if you undercount blue epicenters, you shift political power, elected representation and government largesse to suburbs and rural areas—where a majority of the Trump base and Republican electorate reside.
Top Photo | Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss preparing for the 2020 Census, on Capitol Hill, Oct. 12, 2017 (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).