In a last-minute move that would give Republicans an advantage in maintaining control of the House of Representatives, the Trump administration is reinstating a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. Coming from an administration that has expressed incredible hostility toward immigrants, the change was not surprising, but it’s galling nonetheless.
The commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, announced the decision late Monday, less than a week before the Census Bureau, which his agency oversees, is supposed to send a final list of questions for the 2020 census to Congress. If the decision stands — the attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, has filed a lawsuit seeking to block it, and other elected officials are preparing to do so, too — it would be the first time in nearly 70 years that the federal government has asked people filling out census forms to list their citizenship status.
This is important because the census count determines how many House seats each state gets. The census is also used to determine how more than $600 billion in federal spending is allocated across the country, including Medicaid, food stamps and grants to schools. Asking about citizenship will reduce responses from immigrant families, which are already less likely than others to answer government surveys and are today terrified by President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. An inaccurate count is likely to provide more representation to states with fewer immigrants and relatively higher response rates and take seats away from states like California where response rates would be relatively lower. Given the geography of American politics, that would probably lead to more power for Republicans, and less for Democrats. Experts say response rates will fall even from citizens and permanent residents because they may have family members who are undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Ross’s decision was based on the disingenuous argument that the Department of Justice needs to know the citizenship status of residents in each census tract so it can better protect the rights of minority voters under the Voting Rights Act. Even putting aside the laughable notion that this administration cares about minority voting rights, this argument is bunkum — the Justice Department has been enforcing that law without access to such data for decades. The last census that asked people to report their citizenship status was conducted in 1950, 15 years before the Voting Rights Act became law. What’s more, the Justice Department already has access to citizenship data through the American Community Survey, which is conducted every year.
The timing of this change is highly suspect. It comes too late to be included in a field test of the 2020 census that the government is conducting right now with 275,000 households in Providence County, R.I. In his memo, Mr. Ross sought to downplay concerns that the citizenship question would reduce response rates by claiming there was no “empirical evidence” to back up that argument. Yet, by seeking to insert the question so late in the process, he himself has prevented officials from empirically testing how people will react to it.
The evidence that does exist shows that the concerns about the citizenship question curbing participation are legitimate. The Census Bureau reported in a September memo that its surveyors were encountering significant resistance from immigrants about providing personal information to the government because they feared it would not be kept confidential. “The immigrant is not going to trust the census employee when they are continuously hearing a contradicting message from the media every day threatening to deport immigrants,” one Arabic-speaking respondent told the bureau.
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