President Trump put country first last week in ending his quest to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census. He returned to where his administration appeared to stand two weeks ago when the Justice Department announced the printing of census forms would proceed without the question. The absence of the question means the Census Bureau is better positioned to deliver an accurate count, or an “actual enumeration” of persons living here, as the Constitution requires.
The president didn’t get to this position easily. He initially balked at the Justice announcement, insisting the administration was “absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question.” In conceding on Thursday, he charged that opponents are “trying to erase the very existence of a very important word and a very important thing, citizenship.”
That hardly is so. As the president now acknowledges, there are alternative means for collecting citizenship information, including the American Community Survey, a creation of the past two decades, designed as a continuing effort to collect data about the country. The trouble with including a citizenship question in the census conducted once every 10 years is many immigrants, both legal and undocumented, may balk at participating, fearing their information will be shared with law enforcement or lead to harassment.
That risks an incomplete count, experts putting the likely shortfall at 6.5 million. An errant number has consequences with $900 billion a year in federal funding linked to census data, not to mention the redrawing of district lines for the U.S. House, state legislatures and local jurisdictions. The shape of the Electoral College is at stake.
In forgoing a general citizenship question, the president has sided with the consensus of experts. After the 1950 census, experts raised concerns about an undercount. Thus, a decade later, the Census Bureau adopted two forms, short and long. The latter went to a small fraction of households and included a type of citizenship question through the 2000 census. By 2010, the American Community Survey was up and running, amounting to an improvement over the long form.
So Barack Obama didn’t remove the citizenship question, as claimed by Rush Limbaugh and Kellyanne Conway. If anything, their comments highlight the partisanship at play. The president indicated as much when he explained last week: “(T)his (citizenship) information is also relevant to administering our elections. Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts, based upon the voter eligible population.”
Political boundaries drawn according to citizenship data would favor Republicans, an argument made by the late Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist whose papers reveal contacts with the Trump team about including a citizenship question. This revelation reinforces the Supreme Court conclusion two weeks ago that the administration’s rationale for the question is “contrived.” In other words, it isn’t about improved enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
One day after pulling back on the citizenship question, the president talked about “a major operation,” starting Sunday, involving nationwide raids to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants. This effort raises the worry: How much damage has been done? In that way, the citizenship controversy looks like another vehicle for stirring fear, deterring immigrant participation in the census to Republican advantage.
Thus, it is pleasing to see state and local officials mobilizing to promote participation. The census doesn’t belong as a partisan endeavor. It is an opportunity for the country to rally behind an accurate count, helping to ensure federal money is spent properly and political boundaries are drawn fairly. Many businesses and other organizations depend on census numbers for decision-making. So the country is well served going ahead without a citizenship question.