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Question turns the census into a political weapon

February 2, 2019

A federal judge in New York has stopped — for now — the Trump administration from weaponizing the census. Judge Jesse Furman said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who now has authority over the Census Bureau, broke a veritable smorgasbord of federal rules last year when — against the advice of his own Census Bureau experts — he ordered a question on citizenship added to the short form of the 2020 census that goes to every household.

In a carefully constructed 277-page opinion, the court concluded that “hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people will go uncounted in the census if the citizenship question is included. … That undercount, in turn, will translate into a loss of political power and funds.”

The judge noted that since 1950, “the Census Bureau and former Census Bureau officials have consistently opposed periodic proposals to resume asking a citizenship question of every census respondent.”

It would depress response rates and elicit inaccurate responses, especially among minorities with immigrant relatives. Almost half of all Latinos (46 percent) and Asians (45 percent) in the U.S. today reside in households with noncitizen members, more than 11 million of them undocumented. The fear of government taking action against their families is very real at a time when the Trump administration threatens to restrict immigration and deport those who are here illegally.

The Founding Fathers established a census of the population to frame the basis for representation in our government in the Constitution (Article I, Section 2). Conducted every 10 years, it is the basis on which congressional seats are apportioned among the states, and it is used to achieve fair representation at all levels of government.

In addition to equitable representation, a census undercount can affect programs that rely on an accurate count for funding, planning and distribution of federal dollars. An undercount of the population will shrink Texas’ share — and the share of cities, such as San Antonio, with large numbers of Hispanics — of the $900 billion in federal funds that are distributed based on population for medical, social and education programs.

Why add a citizenship question that will likely result in inaccurate results, an undercount, and unequal representation and loss of federal funding for many areas?

Ross testified at two congressional hearings that the Justice Department in a Dec. 12, 2017, letter asked that the citizenship question be added to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which requires that districts be drawn to provide minority voters a fair chance of electing the candidates of their choice. This is surprising since the Justice Department under the Trump administration has not brought a single lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act.

Information on citizenship is already collected by the bureau in its American Community Survey, or ACS, sample that goes to 2 percent of the population every year. Those of us who have testified as experts in voting rights cases know that the ACS estimates of citizens of voting age are adequate for assessing whether a particular district configuration gives minorities a fair chance of electing their preferred candidates.

Within days of his testimony, a number of lawsuits were filed to stop Ross from including the citizenship question in the census. In preparation for trial in one of the suits, it was revealed that Ross had lied in his testimony about the Justice Department’s request. He later admitted that he asked the Justice Department to make the request.

Since Ross refused to testify in the case, the court could not reach a conclusion as to his motive for including the citizenship question. From the transcript: “the Court finds that the VRA as a post hoc rationale for a decision that Secretary (Ross) had already made for other reasons.”

We can only speculate about those reasons.

The testimony in the case reveals that it was not long after he was confirmed as secretary of commerce in January 2017 that Ross received a call from President Donald Trump’s chief political adviser, Steven Bannon. Bannon asked if Ross would be willing to have a conversation with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach about adding a citizenship question to the decennial census.

Given the source of the request — extreme right nationalist Bannon — it could be another of the administration’s efforts to harass and intimidate families with immigrants.

I asked William Frey, a demographer who specializes in the census at the Brookings Institution, to clarify whether a citizenship question could be used to facilitate raids by the INS.

He noted that while noncitizens could not specifically be identified as undocumented, “it is certainly the case that having even public information from the census on the clustering of noncitizens for the total population would give federal law enforcement more information for targeting potential undocumented immigrants.”

He went on: “The Trump Justice Department’s broader objective with this suggestion seems to be to further fan the flames of its signature immigrant deportation issue and scare off fearful immigrants and their families from completing the census.”

There could also be a partisan political motive to adding the citizenship question. The decennial census apportions the 335 U.S. House seats among the states based on the count of “all persons,” citizens and noncitizens. The census of population is then used by the states to draw districts for members of Congress and their own legislative bodies so that every person gets the same amount of representation, as called for in the Supreme Court’s decision in Reynolds v. Sim, establishing the principle of one person, one vote.

Analysis by Frey found that if just 15 percent of the noncitizen population did not respond to the census, California and New York — two big immigrant states that also vote Democratic — would each lose an additional congressional seat (to the benefit of Colorado and Montana).

And if states were to draw district lines within their boundaries based on number of citizens rather than the number of people, representation would be further slanted toward rural and small-town areas, which tend to be whiter, older and more conservative. Such unequal representation undercuts the basis of our democracy.

This is not the first time that Trump as president has played partisan politics with our democratic institutions. After challenging the veracity of Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by almost 3 million, he claimed he would have won had it not been for millions of illegal immigrants who voted.

He pressed the issue further by appointing a voter fraud commission chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and anti-immigrant zealot Kobach as vice chair. Kobach sent letters to all fifty states requesting files of all their registered voters in search of fraudulent voters. No evidence of any significant illegal immigrant voter fraud was found. Fewer than half of all states agreed to cooperate; the commission was disbanded seven months later.

As a researcher who relies on the accuracy of the census in his work every day, demographer Frey’s concern is that the decennial census, the truest measure of our population, could be turned into “a political event, replete with rallies and social media blitzes about who should not be counted and who can be thought of as real Americans.”

As responsible citizens, we, too, should be concerned with the abuse of administrative power when our democratic institutions are turned into political weapons.

Robert Brischetto, Ph.D., was executive director of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Research Institute and a sociology professor at Trinity University.

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