Stop ginning up hysteria: Citizenship question on census is nothing new

Stop ginning up hysteria: Citizenship question on census is nothing new
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Sam Houston once told a story that seems applicable to the current debate over returning a citizenship question to the census in 2020. The story related that a manufacturer of bologna sausage accused a man whom he had fired of spreading a rumor that the manufacturer’s sausage was made from dog meat. The accused man protested his firing, saying “I never said any such thing, but I will tell you what I did say. I said that, where bologna sausages are plentiful, dogs are scarce.” That story is applicable because it involves two things that are all too common in our current political climate: slander and bologna.

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Lost in this partisan uproar is that a citizenship question has appeared in some form or another on censuses throughout our history. Indeed, it was only removed entirely in 2010 by President Obama, and its roots stretch deep into the founding era. It’s worth detailing the history to dispel all the false narratives.

A question about citizenship was proposed for the first time in 1800 by Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for an inquiry into “the respective numbers of native citizens, citizens of foreign birth, and of aliens.” His straightforward reason for wanting such a question was “for the purpose of more exactly distinguishing the increase of population by birth and immigration.” Jefferson got his wish just two decades later, when a version of his question appeared on the census of 1820, which asked how many “foreigners not naturalized” lived in each household.

The citizenship question recurred multiple times from 1820 to 1890. And from 1890 to 1950, it appeared on every census. Since then, it has been included on every long-form census questionnaire from 1970 to 2000. To this day, the question is still asked on the American Community Survey, an annual supplement to the decennial census. The citizenship question is not a new concept; it is the restoration of common sense.

The Constitution requires a census every 10 years, and it is essential that census be an accurate count of the total population. Given how the states and federal government use the census, it is absurd to suggest that count should not consider the number of U.S. citizens and non-citizens in the country. After all, the census is used to draw congressional districts and assure the voters of each state are adequately represented in Congress. So, we are talking about information that has been collected throughout most of our history and is critical to the very core democratic protections of the Constitution.

It is worth noting that the citizenship question does not ask about a person’s legal status; it merely asks about citizenship status and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with immigration enforcement. In fact, federal law prevents census data from being used for anything other than statistical analysis. That is the law and there is no evidence any agency intends to violate it.

Another point lost in the debate is that the citizenship question protects minority voters by aiding Texas and other states to apportion legislative seats while complying with the Voting Rights Act. That law rightly forbids the “denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Courts have held this prevents states from drawing legislative districts that dilute minority voting strength. Without accurate citizenship numbers, there is no way of knowing if the voices of minority voters are being unfairly diluted.

Furthermore, knowing the number of citizens in any district will help reduce voter fraud by providing a more complete picture of the eligible voters in a district. If there are, say, 300,000 U.S. citizens in a district, and 350,000 turn out to vote in an election, we’ll know there’s a problem. Put simply, it is likely the Obama administration’s failure to ask this question has harmed minority communities by making voter fraud harder to detect. The objections to the citizenship question assume it will decrease participation in Census Bureau surveys, but no such evidence exists. In fact, when President Obama removed the question in 2010, there was no sudden increase in reporting population.

But this discussion is not being driven by the facts. It is being driven by politicians who hope to gain votes by creating a culture of fear and distrust among the American people. If there is a legitimate fear at all, it is that media hype may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is reckless and irresponsible of elected leaders in our country to give minorities the mistaken impression that they have anything to fear from the census for the sake of political gain. It is a sad commentary on the current state of the bologna market, if you ask me.

As a sovereign nation, America should know what proportion of its population is comprised of citizens and what proportion is not. President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House counsel called Trump 'King Kong' behind his back: report Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight Trump claims he instructed White House counsel to cooperate with Mueller MORE, as have so many of his predecessors from both parties, has made the right choice on this issue; it would be foolhardy of the judicial branch to set it aside based on the hysterical claims of partisan politics.

Ken Paxton is attorney general of Texas.