July 17, 2019
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Census questions: Shifting answers should doom citizenship query

J. Scott Applewhite | AP
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
In this June 27, 2019, file photo, Demonstrators gather at the Supreme Court as the justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could not include a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census because it had not offered a reasonable rationale for doing so.

Many legal observers believed this settled the long-simmering matter. The Departments of Commerce and Justice said the 2020 Census form would be printed without the controversial question. It had argued in court that printing of the questionnaires had to begin on June 30.

Then, on July 3, the president tweeted that such reports were “fake” and that his administration was moving forward with the question. This is, of course, an outrageous defiance of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Worse, it continues a pattern of lying and course changes around the proposed citizenship question. All of which is further reason for the question not to be included in the once-a-decade survey of American households.

The last time a citizenship question was included for all Americans was in 1950. It asked where members of a household were born and if they were naturalized if they were born outside the U.S. Beginning in 1970, questions about citizenship were included on the long form, which went to a small percentage of U.S. homes. The 2010 American Community Survey, which replaced the long form, did not ask about citizenship.

Now, the Trump administration is working to bring it back.

After months of flimsy and changing reasons for why the question was essential, President Donald Trump, likely inadvertently, stated the real reasons: “Number one, you need it for Congress — you need it for Congress for districting,” he said outside the White House on Friday while talking with the press. “You need it for appropriations — where are the funds going? How many people are there? Are they citizens? Are they not citizens? You need it for many reasons.”

These two primary reasons listed by the president — congressional districts and disbursement of federal funds — were not previously mentioned by the Departments of Justice and Commerce as they argued for including the question in the Census.

For good reason — they lay bare the administration’s true intentions. Including a question about citizenship will likely prompt many immigrants, whether they arrived in the U.S. legally or illegally, to avoid Census questionnaires. Undercounting immigrants means that many urban areas will receive fewer federal funds. And, perhaps more important to Trump and his allies, undercounting immigrants could change congressional district boundaries with the intent of benefitting Republicans and white voters in many areas.

Trump had previously said the question was needed because, “I think it’s very important to find out if somebody’s a citizen as opposed to an illegal. I think that there’s a big difference to me between being a citizen of the United States and being an illegal,” he told reporters in the Oval Office earlier this month before claiming that Democrats want to treat “illegals” better than American citizens, including coal miners.

The Commerce Department, which oversees the Census, is prohibited from sharing individual answers with other federal agencies. That hasn’t stopped Trump’s Citizenship and Immigration Services director from acknowledging that the Census citizenship information would be helpful.

For this reason, the damage may already be done, regardless of whether the citizenship question makes it onto the Census form. Just hearing that the U.S. government is seeking information about immigrants will cause many of them to steer clear of federal programs and officials — whether they are here legally or illegally. Reinforced with ICE raids of homes and workplaces, some immigrants may even leave the country.

That, likely, was one of the goals all along.

The administration has replaced its legal team in the on-going court battle and Attorney General William Barr said the White House would still be able to add the question to the Census. The president may just direct the Commerce Department to do it.

A persuasive argument could be made that it would be helpful for the federal government to know how many immigrants are in the United States illegally. This information would surely help a serious and good-faith effort to reform our immigration system. However, the Trump administration has shown that it is not interested in such an effort, and cannot be trusted to gather or use such information.

 



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