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Opinoin | Ali Noorani

Lack of citizenship question is good for red states, too

Demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court as the justices finished the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census.
Demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court as the justices finished the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In a complicated ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s justification for including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census — which many viewed as an intentional means of scaring immigrants away from participating in the process. That view was bolstered by revelations that a top GOP operative discussed the citizenship question with a Census Bureau official.

To be clear, the ruling is not a full rebuke of adding a citizenship question. The court merely said that it does not buy the Trump administration’s justification. Practically speaking, that means there probably is not sufficient time to add the controversial question prior to the 2020 Census.

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Which, ironically, is a good thing for red states.

The lack of a citizenship question would be positive news for Boston, given its large number of immigrants. The city already has one of the lowest census return rates in the country.

An undercount on the census would mean fewer electoral votes in presidential races, and less representation in Congress.

But it’s also good news for much redder places. Among the states with the largest percentage increases in immigrants from 2010 to 2016, Trump carried 9 of the top 12, and 17 of the top 26. The goal of lowering census participation in blue cities could have led to lower participation in red states like North Dakota, West Virginia, Nebraska, and Alaska.

Not only Boston, but also red states with disproportionate growth in their immigrant populations had a lot to lose from the inclusion of a citizenship question, especially in terms of the allocation of federal funding.

The census count has immense implications in how federal money is allocated for health care, roads, education, and other assistance programs that are often distributed through funding formulas based on population. Thus, the court’s ruling probably means red states will avoid the possibility of being shorted billions in federal dollars in an undercount.

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A report from the Census Bureau found that census data affected upwards of 300 programs responsible for allocating more than $675 billion in federal funds during fiscal 2015. When it comes to apportioning money for programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal government relies on the Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, which uses census data to determine the amount of matching funds states receive. Red states hold 17 of the top 20 slots in terms of matching funds. One analysis found that states missed out on $1,091 for every person not counted in the last census.

Often lost in the heated debate leading up to Thursday’s Supreme Court decision is the important role that immigrants play in our economy, in more conservative communities as well as in cities such as Boston. As a result of an aging and stagnating population, in many parts of the country economic growth is outpacing growth in the labor force, producing acute labor shortages.

As this phenomenon continues, small towns and less urbanized areas — which are often red counties in red states — have the most to gain from more immigration. Look at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency arrested more than 30 undocumented workers in 2018 — and where businesses are struggling to fill 300 open positions.

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Now that the court has ruled, the impetus is on leaders in all states to do all they can to ensure full and accurate census counts.

In Massachusetts, that means Governor Charlie Baker and local leaders must invest public resources in the education and engagement of the immigrant community. Buttressed by resources from philanthropy and the private sector, the stakes are too high for the Bay State to leave anyone uncounted.

Second, we need to start having a real conversation around how to improve our immigration system so that the United States continues to attract and retain talented engineers and farmworkers who can power our growth and make our communities more vibrant. That means passing sensible legislation that allows more immigrants to come and work here legally, while balancing the need for stronger border enforcement and greater collaboration with Central American countries to address the underlying factors driving an increase in asylum seekers. It also means making it safe and secure for immigrants to come out of the shadows. Otherwise, witnesses and victims are afraid to come forward and help law enforcement do its job.

This isn’t controversial stuff: According to a recent Gallup poll, 76 percent of Americans described immigration as a good thing. Voters want policy makers to take constructive action on the issue.

Massachusetts, and Boston specifically, appear to have dodged a bullet with the Supreme Court’s decision today. Surprising though it may seem, many places in red America did too.


Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, author of “There Goes the Neighborhood,” and host of the podcast “Only in America.” Follow him on Twitter @anoorani.

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