In two years, far too many Americans may not be counted. News broke last week that the U.S Census Bureau, which is overseen by the Department of Commerce, has been directed to include a question asking respondents whether or not they are citizens when it conducts its next head count in 2020. While the Trump administration contends that the question will help the Department of Justice prevent voting rights violations by identifying eligible voters — and, by implication, those not eligible to vote — the reality is that many undocumented immigrants and even green-card holders may fear that completing the census form could put them at-risk of deportation. As a result, they may choose to not be counted at all.
The decennial count of U.S. residents is the Constitution’s first official job for the government — it’s mandated just five sentences into our founding charter to conduct an “actual enumeration” of both citizens and noncitizens living in the country. It is used to apportion the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states, is referenced when state legislatures redraw political boundaries and is also used to allocate billions of dollars in federal grants. If the citizenship question has a chilling effect on participation, the consequences of a severe population undercount would be wide-ranging and long-lasting. Government agencies and other groups who rely on the census — many of which provide services to immigrant and minority populations — would have faulty data. The undercount would also lead to inaccurate congressional apportionment that would likely advantage Republicans, as several blue states such as California have dense immigrant populations.
Worse, the path to this decision was appalling and characteristically ham-handed. Because tiny modifications to census questions can have giant effects with 10 years of lingering impact, most new questions are rigorously tested for years in advance. Except for this one. It was simply announced by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, some nine months after the Census Bureau was supposed to have finalized the list of questions.
In addition, the pretext of the decision just doesn’t add up. The Department of Justice has been enforcing the Voting Rights Act without access to such data on citizenship for decades; the last time a citizenship question was asked was in 1950, 15 years before the Act became law. And precedent squares with immigrants’ fears of information being turned over to other government agencies. During World War I, the Census Bureau shared with the military information about young men who were of draft age. During World War II, it shared the names and addresses of Japanese-Americans living on the west coast to help the military relocate them to internment camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor — one of the worst violations of Constitutional rights in U.S. history.
Fortunately, though, the Commerce Department announcement was met with a swift legal retaliation. Led by Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, a largely -Democratic coalition of 17 state attorneys general and seven cities filed a lawsuit on April 3, 2018 to prevent the Trump administration from including the citizenship question. In the lawsuit — filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York — the coalition argued that adding the question would depress the response to the census by noncitizens and their relatives, thwarting the Constitution’s requirement of an “actual enumeration” of the nation’s residents.
At best, the addition of this question indicates extreme recklessness and disregard for proper statistical accuracy. At worst, it is a weaponization of statistics for political ends and a violation of a basic Constitutional command. Executing the census — and executing it accurately and well — is not just an academic exercise. To be counted is to be seen and heard; it is to secure a place in the American story. In our present moment, when many of those who share this country live daily under the sting of marginalization and fear of deportation, there is safety in numbers. What better way for the Trump administration to undermine that strength by undermining a count in the first place?