Citizenship Question Weaponizes the Census

April 6, 2018

Since our nation’s founding, the constitutional mandate for the US Census has been clear: all people living on our nation’s soil must be accurately counted and represented. That simple fact hasn’t stopped the decennial survey from being co-opted throughout history for nefarious, bigoted, and xenophobic reasons. From an early political “compromise” that counted a slave as three-fifths of a person to the George W. Bush administration coercing the Census Bureau into providing data on zip codes with high Arab American concentrations, there are as many reasons to vigilantly defend the program from becoming weaponized as there are to encourage our communities to stand up and be counted. Last week, the Trump administration crossed a major line that must be confronted by lawmakers and citizens alike.

On March 26, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the Trump administration is directing the US Census Bureau to add a question on citizenship for the 2020 Census. The danger is the chilling effect adding such a question would have on entire communities for whom the prospect of discussing their immigration status is a source of permanent fear, regardless of whether they are documented or not. As seen with the previous example of President W. Bush using Census data to isolate Arab Americans, law enforcement agencies could easily take such information (which can be refined down to the level of a city block) to identify and potentially target dense concentrations of families with similar backgrounds and immigration statuses.

With such grim potential consequences for participating in the Census, it is not difficult to predict that entire immigrant communities will simply opt out completely. But that outcome too would have grave implications. The Census’ core purpose is to provide the numerical basis for the apportionment and sizing of congressional districts, which means that a significant enough drop in participation could lead to a wildly inaccurate redrawing of the electoral map, with immigrant-dense areas suffering the most. In addition, a wide range of federal funding to states is divvied up according to population data from the Census, including essential social welfare programs that could also see huge cuts due to reapportionment.

It’s hard to imagine that the Trump administration created this scenario by accident. After all, every one of the President’s signature immigration policies has been a transparent attempt to stoke xenophobic hysteria and single out communities. From the Muslim ban to rescinding DACA, his intent has been clear as has the steady flow of hate speech from him and his staff. The President is coolly defying strong protests from civil rights leaders, scientists, and Census Bureau staff themselves because for him this constitutes a win-win. Either immigrant communities participate in the 2020 Census and open themselves up for targeting, or they abstain out of fear and thus have their voices and true strength in numbers erased.

We cannot allow this false choice to wreak havoc upon our communities. Congress has the power to reverse the decision and must be held responsible for safeguarding the integrity of the Census. Meanwhile, Attorneys General from 18 states have already sued the Trump administration over the decision, and their efforts deserve our support. If worse comes to worst and the question remains on the 2020 Census, Trump’s grandest plans can best be thwarted by immigrant communities defiantly participating in the survey to have their voices counted.



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