A question of citizenship

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wikimedia Commons/Neal Herbert

The Trump administration may be about to toss The Resistance a New Year’s hand grenade.

The left-leaning website ProPublica last week reported that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has sent a letter to the U.S. Census Bureau asking that a question be added to the 2020 census: Are you a citizen of the United States? (Exact wording to be determined)

Observers say the addition “could depress participation by immigrants who fear that the government could use information against them,” according to the story.

“That, in turn, could have potentially large ripple effects for everything the once-a-decade census determines — from how congressional seats are distributed around the country to where hundreds of billions of federal dollars are spent,” the story added.

The letter, which was written by Arthur E. Gary, General Counsel of the DOJ’s Justice Management division and addressed to Ron Jarmin, the Census Bureau’s acting director, said the DOJ wanted the citizenship question included to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act’s “protections against discrimination in voting.”

The ProPublica story was written by Justin Elliott, a reporter with the website whose oeuvre over the past year consists largely of stories critical of the Trump administration.

And the piece on the citizenship question is no exception.

Elliott quotes Arturo Vargas, a member of the National Advisory Committee of the Census and the executive director of NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group, as saying the addition of the citizenship question “is a recipe for sabotaging the census.”

(Actually it’s a recipe for sabotaging The Resistance. More about that in a moment.)

Elliott also quotes Steve Jost, “a former top bureau official during the 2010 census” as saying “people are not going to come out to be counted because they’re going to be fearful the information would be used for negative purposes. This line about enforcing voting rights is a new and scary twist.”

The yarn gives the impression that asking a citizenship question is unprecedented in modern times, which is misleading. True, from 1970 to 2000, the census “short form,” which was sent to about five out of six U.S. households did not ask people if they were citizens, but the more nosey “long forms,” which went to the remaining one-sixth did.

Gary’s letter formally requests “that the Census Bureau reinstate on the 2020 Census questionnaire a question regarding citizenship, formerly included in the so-called ‘long form’ census.”

Gary’s wording is important here. The Census Bureau stopped using the “long form” in 2010, replacing it with the American Community Survey, an annual survey that goes to about one in 38 households, so the citizenship question wasn’t asked in the 2010 decennial census (but was included in the American Community Survey).

What Gary is asking the Census Bureau to do is put a citizenship question on the 2020 short form, which is the form everyone will get in 2020.

Elliott obviously thinks Gary is being disingenuous in focusing entirely on the Voting Rights Act as his reason for wanting the citizenship question in the census — and he’s probably right. Whatever the reason for asking it, the truth is that the citizenship question sticks it to The Resistance in multiple ways.

The primary reason for having the census every 10 years is to re-distribute seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (and thus electoral votes) to the states on the basis of their current population. But if the census hasn’t been distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens in its count, it means that states with large numbers of illegal aliens, like California and Texas, may be getting more seats in Congress than they would otherwise receive. Especially California, which unlike Texas has been experiencing stagnant population growth for the last couple of decades. If a couple million non-citizens dropped out of California’s count, it could lose two or three seats in Congress. Ditto for New York.

Then there’s the economic impact. Every year the federal government directs hundreds of billions of dollars of its spending on the basis of population. Which means that those census tracts with the largest numbers of illegal alien no-shows will take the biggest hits. And where might those census tracts be found? Why in sanctuary cities, of course.

But surely the Trump administration can’t just arbitrarily add or subtract questions from the census on its own, can it? Surely Congress has the final say, doesn’t it? Yep, it sure does.

The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department, and the law governing the census gives the Secretary of Commerce, currently Wilbur Ross, the power to make the call on which questions to include. And by law his choices must be submitted to Congress for review two years before the census takes place, by April 2018 in this case.

Which means that Congress will have to vote on them about six months before the election. And that if The Resistance (or the Democratic Party as we used to call it) demands a party-line vote against the citizenship question, then the 11 Democratic senators up for re-election in states that voted for Trump face the prospect of casting a vote that most of the voters they need to get re-elected — Trump Democrats and independents — would probably see as an example of putting America second.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.