scorecardresearch
Renée Loth

Trump turns apolitical US Census into anti-immigrant tool

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman poses for a photo after a news conference, April 3, in New York. Schneiderman announced a new lawsuit by 17 states, the District of Columbia, and six cities against the US government, saying a plan to add a citizenship demand to the census questionnaire is unconstitutional.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman poses for a photo after a news conference, April 3, in New York. Schneiderman announced a new lawsuit by 17 states, the District of Columbia, and six cities against the US government, saying a plan to add a citizenship demand to the census questionnaire is unconstitutional. (Mary Altaffer/AP Photo)

CAN YOU IMAGINE the outcry if Barack Obama’s Commerce Department had suddenly inserted a question about gun ownership in the US Census? There would be dark predictions of jack-booted government thugs hauling away people who hadn’t properly registered their arsenals. The census response rate would plummet in red states with high gun ownership — Montana, Arkansas, West Virginia. They would then risk losing seats in Congress and millions in federal funds for everything from highways to Medicaid.

Something just as chilling is happening now, as the Trump administration slaps a question in the 2020 US Census about the citizenship status of every resident in the land. But unlike the fervid phobia of gun owners — who, let’s face it, haven’t been threatened with meaningful gun control in years — immigrants really do have something to fear from this administration. The proudly apolitical tradition of the US Census Bureau is already threatened by budget cutbacks and administrative chaos. Adding a last-minute demand for citizenship status in an era of deportations and presidential invective would further undermine the accuracy of the count.

Advertisement



Why does this matter? First, there’s the constitutional duty. The Constitution requires the “actual Enumeration,” every 10 years, of the “whole number of persons” living in the country. The Constitution does not say the whole number of citizens, but persons. Next, the numbers collected are the raw material of democracy, determining the size and shape of voting districts and the distribution of some $675 billion in federal assistance — money certain states stand to lose if large percentages of their residents go into hiding.

Last week, Massachusetts joined 16 other states in a federal lawsuit to stop this poison pill. There’s much at stake here, since immigrants make up 16 percent of the Massachusetts population, and about 20 percent of those are undocumented. But the question would create adverse ripple effects even among legal immigrants; there are some 16 million “mixed-status” households in the United States, and family members who are citizens could refuse to answer out of fear for others who are not.

Advertisement



Normally, changing the questions in the Census is a painstaking, meticulous process. The decision to tweak race and ethnicity questions in the 2020 Census took almost 10 years of testing. But the Commerce Department hastily announced its decision to add the citizenship question on March 29, just before the deadline, admitting it hasn’t determined how it will affect the response rate. A field memo last September from the department itself noted that “fears, particularly among immigrant respondents, have increased markedly this year.” The stated rationale that the question is needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act is laughable: Such a question hasn’t been on the census form that goes to every household since 1950, 15 years before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and its absence was never a burning concern before.

Clearly, the new question is part of the Trump administration’s politically motivated campaign of harassment against immigrants. Trump’s spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, insisted last week that the move was initiated “at the department level,” not the White House. But the very next day Trump’s reelection campaign sent a letter to supporters crowing that Trump himself had “officially mandated” it. Sanders also botched the facts when she claimed a citizenship question was until recently included in the decennial census, when it has only appeared on small sample surveys.

Advertisement



Other Republicans have ridiculed worries about the question among immigrants and their advocates. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida called it “the latest absurd freakout” in a viral tweet last week. But he should know better: Florida saw a 76 percent spike in Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests in 2017, the largest percentage increase in the country. Federal agents have raided 7-11 stores and courthouses and arrested people in the act of applying for green cards. Maybe if Trump’s enforcers weren’t rounding up immigrants who have lived here without incident for decades, killing off the Dreamers program, banning travel from majority-Muslim countries, threatening so-called sanctuary cities, and plotting to send the US military to guard the Mexican border, people wouldn’t freak out quite so much.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.