Trump’s census controversy boils down to one thing: How citizenship data will be used

Trump’s census controversy boils down to one thing: How citizenship data will be used
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Although it had been in the works for months, Tuesday’s announcement by the Justice Department that it would demand the 2020 census inquire about citizenship drew harsh blowback. 

Despite his brewing trade war, the Justice Department under Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHarris stumps for McAuliffe in Virginia On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — The Facebook Oversight Board is not pleased MORE has shown an affinity for Canadian policies; Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE has repeatedly expressed admiration for Canada’s point system of immigration. The proposed expansion of the census with a citizenship question would bring the American census more in line with the most recent Canadian census.

Both Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party and Donald Trump’s Republicans campaigned on the promise of restoration and undoing, rising waves of anti-incumbent sentiment to power. 


In Canada, the Liberals built a platform around reversing the Conservative Party’s policies, particularly what has been described as their “War on Science.” In 2006, the Conservatives controversially scrapped the mandatory long-form census — which has appeared every census since 1871 — in favor of an optional short-form “House Hold Survey.” The move was condemned by organizations as varied as the Canadian Institute of Planners and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Reinstating the long-form census became a key platform for the Liberals, which they promptly instated following their decisive 2015 victory.


In the long form, participants are required to answer a question about their citizenship status, which is justified as providing important data on potential voters. The question has raised no controversy. However flawed its resultant data was, the long form’s return was celebrated by Canadians, receiving a record-high response rate.

Donald Trump’s entire presidency is a foil to Trudeau’s premiership, an equal and opposite reaction to eight years of progressive policies in the U.S. 

When it comes to the census, the Trump administration’s policies are similar to Trudeau’s, and on the surface the reforms are unobjectionable. The Voting Rights Act is a cornerstone of American civil rights, surely something worth defending. The proposed 2020 American census will look more like the 2016 Canadian census, which was described as the “most successful” in the country’s history.

Why is the citizenship question controversial in the United States and not in Canada? Because Canadians, for the most part, trust that their data will not be used against them with bad faith.

With the American public and the Trump administration, it is an entirely different matter. The intense hostility to what seems like an innocuous statistical category illustrates the lasting damage that the current administration has done to fundamental American institutions. 

Censuses are incredibly important sources of data for both the state and its citizens, but in the words of sociologist Bruce Curtis, they are “made, not taken.” The Trump administration has shown a pattern of using any available tool to carry out its nativist mission. There is no reason to trust that the 2020 census is being made to be anything but subterfuge designed to root out undocumented immigrants and dilute the representation of democratic controlled areas. 

The expanded 2020 census will be a headcount, but unlike the 2016 Canadian census, it will be weaponized. 

Daniel Panneton is the historian of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario and the project lead on Not Just Numbers: Representation in the Canadian Census.