Last week, the US Census Bureau declared that — contrary to expectations and common sense —- adding a citizenship question to the 2020 count would not have seriously affected the response rate, even in communities with large immigrant populations. A preliminary national sample of 480,000 households taken by the bureau in June found a difference of just half a percentage point between those whose forms asked whether the respondent was a citizen and those who did not. “This is gratifying news,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who had been pushing the citizenship question on behalf of President Trump until the US Supreme Court ruled it out of bounds for 2020. There was an additional drop-off in Hispanic households, but only of .3 percent.
No harm, no foul, right? Time to gin up the machinery to put a citizenship question on the 2030 Census!
Not so fast. The new survey is dubious because its self-serving conclusions were announced only in a brief blog post. None of the detailed data have yet been released. Previous studies by the Census Bureau have reached the opposite conclusion. The June survey was just one national sample and not a rigorous field test of the sort the bureau conducts repeatedly before every census. And it was conducted at the 11th hour, just as the Supreme Court was considering whether to allow the question at all. “The timing of the test couldn’t have been worse,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. She called the sample results “relatively meaningless.”
Advocates for a full and fair census breathed a sigh of relief at the Supreme Court’s narrowly written opinion. But they still have plenty of other threats to gird against. The state of Alabama is suing the US Commerce Department for following the Constitution’s mandate that the federal government count “the whole number of persons in each state,” saying that including undocumented immigrants in the census puts states with fewer immigrants at a disadvantage. Much is at stake: the apportionment of congressional seats, influence in the Electoral College, and billions in federal funding. Never mind that Alabama has only itself to blame for being undercounted relative to other states; it has among the lowest census response rates in the country. Instead of participating more fully, Alabama wants to game the system by changing the definition of “persons.” The case is pending in federal district court.
Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t given up on his quest to literally discount immigrants. On the same day he grudgingly backed down from his bid to ask respondents their citizenship status, Trump signed an executive order instructing individual government agencies to gather that information and provide it to the Commerce Department anyway. This, the order said, would help states “design state and local legislative districts based on the population of voter-eligible citizens” (emphasis mine). Trump further instructed the Secretary of Commerce to “consider initiating any administrative process necessary to include a citizenship question on the 2030 decennial census.”
It’s ironic that Republicans are so bent on requiring respondents to declare their immigration status, since for years they trashed the census precisely for asking too many nosy questions. In 2010, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning the long-form questionnaire, calling it “a dangerous invasion of privacy.” But their motivation now is clear enough: They want to dilute the political power of immigrant communities. Often, when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise — whether against the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, or the Irish and Italians of the 1920s — nativists attempt to tinker with the census. As if not counting the huddled masses would make them disappear.
There are threats to the 2020 Census, now just a few months away: It will be the first one conducted mostly online, and the bureau is not on track to hire sufficient workers to conduct the count. But the biggest threat may be that the confusion and fear Trump has sown — whether diabolically or carelessly — will suppress participation among marginalized groups. The best way to thwart his efforts is with a robust turnout, to make sure everyone is counted. Just as with voting, the cure for a fractured democracy is more democracy.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.