Commentary
By Helen Salita 10-29-2018

In March, the Trump administration added a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. Multiple lawsuits have been brought against this addition. The last time some form of citizenship question was asked on the census was 1950. If this question wasn’t asked for six consecutive censuses, then why is the Trump administration pushing to reinstate it now?

A number of census experts, including the Census Scientific Advisory Board and six former heads of the Census Bureau , have come out against the addition of a citizenship question. They argue that it will significantly depress immigrant responses, leading to an inaccurate count. The current chief scientist of the Census Bureau came out against the question after research found that the question would discourage non-citizens from taking part given increased concerns about immigrant enforcement under the Trump administration.

The administration has stated that the citizenship question has to do with obtaining better data on voting-aged adults in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA). However, their explanation has shifted a few times. In March, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated that the Justice Department, which oversees the enforcement of the VRA, requested the question be added. But in a memo written by Ross in June, the story changed. He wrote that he had talked about adding the question with other government officials and the Justice Department only requested the question after his aides asked them to.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, who presided over one of the court cases surrounding the inclusion of the question, stated that Ross’ multiple explanations were “potentially untrue” and highly improbable given that the Justice Department “has shown little interest in enforcing the Voting Rights Act.”

Jarmin attempted to schedule meetings with the Department of Justice about better methods for gathering information on citizenship. However, according to the testimony of John Gore, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions “personally made the decision to direct DOJ not even to meet with the Census Bureau to discuss alternative approaches.”

Advocacy groups, states, and other localities have joined together and brought multiple lawsuits, attempting to keep the question from the census. They argue that the administration’s agenda in adding the question is to ensure that immigrants are uncounted in the census. They cite immigrants’ increasing fears over the administration having access to their personal information. Undercounting immigrants would have drastic consequences. Information from the census is used to redraw congressional districts, reappropriate how many seats in the House each state has, and how federal funds are distributed.

By inaccurately counting immigrants, a greater imbalance in political representation could be caused in Congress. Immigrants tend to vote Democratic. But with this misinformation, Democrats would stand to lose districts in states or have districts further gerrymandered, leading to a loss in seats in the House, while still having the same number of people in their district. If achieved, this balance of power would favor a privileged few.

Another problem is the distribution of federal funds. Underreporting would lead to certain states seeing a decrease in federal funds, leading to less funds for local schools, roads, and hospitals. This would cause communities that are already vulnerable to experience great harm. This concern expressed by the advocacy groups and localities seems to be corroborated by emails from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to Ross. Kobach urged Ross to include a citizenship question, writing “aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional appointment purposes.” He also stated that he was reaching out to Ross “on the direction of Steve Bannon,” who was at the time a White House strategist.

Questions about citizenship seem to arise during periods when white Americans feel their identity is under attack. Phrases such as “Irish need not apply” were commonplace and anti-immigrant sentiments, particularly focused on Asians and those from Eastern and Southern Europe, were once codified in federal law. The census citizenship question was removed in the 1950s after being used against previous waves of immigrants.

Although the Supreme Court temporarily blocked Ross from sitting for a deposition in a court case, the good news is that many groups are still actively working to block the question. More than two dozen states and cities have filed lawsuits and Faith in Public Life has launched a Census Matters campaign, which aims to ensure that the 2020 census is fair and accurate. What is needed now is for groups and individuals to continue in their efforts to resist not only a citizenship question, but the administration’s overall nationalist agenda.

Helen is the Campaigns, Mobilizing, and Media Assistant

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