Sabotaged Census: Citizenship question guarantees undercount

For more than six decades, the U.S. Census has gotten along very well without asking everyone living in this country to explain their immigration status. Why not ask? For one big reason: People who are undocumented would be naturally reluctant to respond. They would simply avoid the census — as is every American’s right, incidentally — for fear that the next knock on their door wouldn’t be a census taker, it would be a federal immigration agent.

This pre-1950s approach to the census would, of course, lead to an undercount of the “actual Enumeration” required by the U.S. Constitution in Article I, Section 2 and the consequences would be far more serious than any brief discomfort of recent arrivals. It would mean that congressional districts would not be accurately drawn, federal education funding would be skewed, health statistics often used for medical research would be out of whack and various federal programs that dole out benefits based on population from roads and law enforcement to farm aid would be made unfair.

Yet this is exactly the approach the Trump administration wishes to take in 2020. Why? In announcing the decision Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the question should help identify possible voting rights transgressions. In other words, a district where the minority voter turnout doesn’t match the minority population requires the further explanation of the local residents’ legal status before deciding whether to target it for remedies authorized by the Voting Rights Act. This is, of course, ridiculous. The government already does regular surveys that judge, among other things, the citizenship status of localities based on samples of the population. We already have a pretty good idea where undocumented immigrants live, and so does the Trump administration, which is what makes it so clear what the actual motivation is: messing with congressional districts.

That’s why California — the state most likely to be messed with thanks to its size and number of undocumented immigrants — immediately filed suit Monday to stop the Trump administration’s plan as a violation of the Constitution. It’s hard to deny the logic put forth by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra: Removing a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from California and handing it to a Red State less likely to be affected by undercounting directly benefits the Republican Party.

Indeed, Blue State Republicans ought to be just as outraged by this action as any Democrat. No matter their position on immigration — whether it requires walls or beefed up border security or penalties against so-called “sanctuary” cities or none of the above — states and local governments still have a legal requirement to provide basic services to all their citizenry regardless of immigration status. In this country, police and fire fighters don’t refuse a call because your green card is expired. Youngsters aren’t refused admission to the local elementary school because their parents overstayed a tourist visa. An undercount means local taxpayers are left holding the bag to pay for these things because inaccurate counting translates into inaccurate revenue sharing.

Former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder has described the Trump administration action as a “direct attack on our representative democracy” and we inclined to agree. Secretary Ross’ justifications are so flimsy, and the political motivations so obvious, that it’s impossible to see this in any other light — at least one unfiltered by right-wing partisanship. This isn’t the first time the census has run afoul of politics (in years past, some have similarly resisted outreach efforts to track down, or perhaps estimate the number of, homeless and other low-income individuals who might otherwise go unnoticed), but it’s surely among the most heavy-handed to date given that the estimated 12 million undocumented who are in danger of being ignored altogether.

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