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Let’s Just Count All of Us

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 20, 2018

You’d think the question would be simple: How big is the U.S. population?

The Constitution demanded a count every 10 years, the first Federal Population Census was taken in 1790, and it has been taken every ten years since. Recognizing the growing complexity of the decennial census, in 1902, Congress creating a permanent Census Office first within the Department of the Interior then moved it to Commerce and Labor.

While there have always been changes in how the numbers are collected and how to count for specific populations like students or prisoners, now the Trump administration wants to change the Census with a singular question: Are you a citizen?

It’s a question not asked since 1950. When asked why we needed it, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told Congress the government needed it to enforce voting rights laws.

The decision to add the citizenship question immediately triggered widespread criticism from civil rights advocates and Democrats who fearthat it will result in an undercounting of key groups — which, in turn, could shift political representation, power and federal dollars away from states with large immigrant populations.

Two things have happened since:

  • California and New York have filed suit on behalf of other states challenging the move, and the federal courts so far have rejected Department of Justice attempts to halt the legal cases. S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco ruled a week ago that the challenge can go on. While Seeborg did not issue a formal ruling from the bench, he pushed back on many of the Justice Department attorneys’ arguments. “They’re saying effectively this is a poison pill to the count for the purposes of depressing the count,” Seeborg said in summing up the plaintiffs’ position.
  • And, despite protestations to the contrary, documentsreleased by the Commerce Department in July provides further evidence that Ross was pushing to add the citizenship question far more actively, and much earlier than his later sworn testimony indicated. The documents show that Ross, at the urging of former presidential adviser Stephen Bannon, wanted the question as part of the administration’s anti-immigrant policies.

Former directors of the Census Bureau under both Republican and Democratic administrations have written to oppose the change, saying ina letterhat adding the question now would be “highly risky,” could have “unexpected” consequences.

As Greg Sargent in The Washington Post has argued, whether Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions actually wants to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, this rationale alone does not address the problem raised by critics, which is that adding a citizenship question could depress the response rate from undocumented immigrants resulting in an undercount in high immigrant areas. As they have pointed out, all people residing in the United States — whether citizens or not — must be counted in the census for purposes involving congressional representation and the distribution of federal money.

The former Census department heads argued that adding an untested question on citizenship status at this late point in the complex, 10-year planning process would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk. … planning a decennial census is an enormous challenge.

Of course, in addition to the court challenges, Congress can pass a bill stopping the question before 2020.

Let’s be clear here. There is a bunch of governmental gobbledly-gook being thrown around to camouflage the main point here. If you don’t count undocumented immigrants, you will freeze money that can help them and their legal neighbors. Like so much else in the Trump administration policy-making about immigration, this is an arrow with a poisoned tip aimed at non-white immigration. It is part of the scapegoating of immigrants.

Democratic California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra was the first to file suit in U.S. District Court seeking to block the question. “Having an accurate Census count should be of the utmost importance for every Californian,” Becerra said. “The Census numbers provide the backbone for planning how our communities can grow and thrive in the coming decade. California simply has too much to lose for us to allow the Trump administration to botch this important decennial obligation.” The Democratic New York Attorney General followed, and then 17 other states.

More than 60% of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States live in just 20 metro areas across the country. Twelve of those 20 metro areas are in blue states that backed Hillary Clintonby wide margins in the 2016 presidential election. More than a million undocumented immigrants live in the New York area, and a million more live in Los Angeles, according to a 2017 studyby the Pew Research Center. Chicago, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Denver and four California metro areas all have between 100,000 and 400,000 undocumented immigrant residents.

An undercount of undocumented immigrants also threatens funding for several red states where those immigrants live. Houston, Dallas and Austin, Texas, all have large undocumented populations, as does Atlanta, Miami, Orlando, Fla., and Phoenix, all carried by Trump in the last election.

Let’s just count all of us, and recognize the reality of our actual social services obligations.


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