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Trump wants to turn back time with census citizenship question

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The Trump administration’s decision to ask people their citizenship status in the 2020 Decennial Census is sparking controversy and litigation. It has been almost 70 years since the decennial census asked a question about citizenship. One set of lawsuits argues that the citizenship question would have a chilling effect on census participation among Hispanic and Asian Americans and immigrants, generally out of fear that the information would be used against them or members of their household.

Another lawsuit, brought by a coalition of state attorneys general and cities, argues that the citizenship question would violate the Constitution’s requirement that a census count everyone residing in the United States. These lawsuits also maintain the citizenship question would adversely impact laws governing data quality and administrative procedure.

{mosads}Documents from the court cases indicate the citizenship directive comes from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The Census Bureau’s Scientific Advisory Committee has challenged Ross, issuing a statement that he based the decision on “flawed logic” that could threaten the accuracy and confidentiality of the head count. Six former bureau directors went on record against the citizenship question, warning Ross that adding a question at this time would “have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality and truthfulness of response.”


Although the Trump administration asserts that it needs a more detailed citizenship question to enforce the Voting Rights Act, the claim rings hollow to many voting rights activists. According to Vanita Gupta, former head of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, “Rigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has never required the addition of a citizenship question on the census form sent to all households.” In the broader context of the administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and harsh policies such as travel bans, zero tolerance, and a denaturalization task force, using the protection of voting rights as justification seems like crocodile tears.

A brief history of the census’ role in representational democracy helps sharpen the focus of the current debate.

Article I of the U.S. Constitution requires that an enumeration of the population be done every 10 years and that the U.S. House of Representatives be apportioned “according to their respective numbers.” The drafters of the Constitution envisioned a growing nation, in terms of both geography and population. Every resident counted, not just voting-age white men of the early federal period. However, enslaved residents were assigned a three-fifths value when it came to apportioning seats in the House before ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments.

Demographic historian Margo Anderson notes that the census began asking questions in 1820 about foreigners who were residents but not naturalized U.S. citizens. It stopped differentiating between foreign nationals and citizens in 1840. It was another 50 years — in 1890 — before questions of citizenship were asked again. All the while, the census asked about nativity (where a person was born) and ancestry (where a person’s parents were born).

The 1950 Decennial Census was the last one to ask citizenship status, because citizenship information has not been considered essential. Instead, the Census Bureau included citizenship status on sample surveys of U.S. households taken to augment census and labor market data between the decennial census, i.e., the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey.

History also provides reasons that those holding political power might want to undercount minorities.

Breaking with the Constitution, Congress did not use the 1920 census to reapportion its seats. The migration of people to urban areas during World War I, coupled with large-scale immigration from southern and eastern Europe, marked the end of the United States as an agrarian nation. It was apparent the 1920 population distribution would have shifted power away from the South and other rural parts of the country. Southern Democrats and rural Republicans coalesced against urban members of both political parties to prevent redistricting until the 1930s.

That same coalition of Southern Democrats and rural Republicans enacted race-based immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 that set quotas on immigrant admissions according to the nativity data from the 1890 census. Their expressed objective was returning America to what it looked like before people came from southern and eastern Europe. Immigration historian Alan Kraut traces the slogan “Make America Great Again” to this period 100 years ago. Then, as now, those holding political power were trying to turn back the hands of time.

The parallels to today are striking, because immigrants are concentrated in specific parts of the country. Pew Research Center finds almost half (46 percent) of the nation’s 43.2 million immigrants live in just three states: California (25 percent), Texas (11 percent) and New York (10 percent). Most immigrants (65 percent) live in 20 major metropolitan areas. Suppressing the population count in these parts of the country would undercut the political power of these states and cities. It likely would shift more power to the party that currently controls all branches of the federal government — Republicans.

Those who aim to suppress the enumeration of immigrants and minorities in the census are clinging by the threads of power in an ever-changing nation. Efforts to diminish the impact of those who renew our nation and make us economically and culturally vibrant are unwise and immoral. The preservation of our representative democracy hinges on inclusion of all people. Everyone counts.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration.

Tags Citizenship of the United States Demography Donald Trump Human migration Opposition to immigration Wilbur Ross

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