Few functions of government are as central to American democracy as the U.S. census. In particular, the headcount conducted every 10 years is used to allocate U.S. House seats (and Electoral College votes), to redraw congressional and state legislative districts, and to distribute federal funding for everything from health care to transportation. In our system of government, if you are not counted, you do not count.
That is why the Commerce Department’s announcement on March 26 that it will include a question about citizenship status on the 2020 Census has sparked such outrage, especially among Latinos. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus condemned the announced change, and nearly every major national Latino political and civil rights group has followed suit. They are right to do so: Adding the citizenship question is perhaps the most blatant attack yet on the political representation of Latino Americans under the Trump administration. As Simone Campbell, S.S.S., the executive director of the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, said in a statement, “The inclusion of a citizenship question in the 2020 Census is a political calculation designed to undermine our Constitution and undercount children, people of color, and other vulnerable populations.”
“The inclusion of a citizenship question in the 2020 Census is a political calculation designed to undermine our Constitution.”
Why is the citizenship question so damaging to the integrity of the census? Every day, it seems, there is a new horrific story about immigrants being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or by the Border Patrol. Just this month, a combat veteran who completed two tours in Afghanistan was deported to Mexico, a mother was picked up by the Border Patrol off a street in California in front of her screaming kids, and a farmworker couple were killed in a car crash while fleeing ICE, orphaning their six children. The fear in Latino communities around the country, which account for a majority of undocumented immigrants and are consistently targeted by ICE, is palpable.
Including a question about citizenship on the census will have a chilling effect on Latino participation in the nationwide count. If you are a part of the Latino community, you are probably a citizen or a legal permanent resident. But you probably know someone who is undocumented—a neighbor, a friend, perhaps a relative or even a parent or grandparent. Now imagine a man from the government comes knocking on your door. He wants to know who lives with you. He wants to know: “Who here is a citizen?” No one could fault you if you chose not to open the door.
The prevalence of mixed-status families practically guarantees that the 2020 Census will dramatically undercount the Latino population.
The prevalence of mixed-status families (73 percent of the children of undocumented immigrants are U.S. citizens) practically guarantees that the 2020 Census will dramatically undercount the Latino population of the United States. If we are not accurately counted, then we cannot be fairly represented. Diminished political clout will, among other things, lead our communities to lose access to health care, education and other important funding. In short, the chilling effect of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census will result in a lack of equal franchise for Latinos.
This is why, contrary to what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has claimed, the citizenship question has been left off of the decennial census since 1950. (Since then, the Census Bureau has included the question only on supplemental surveys.) In their decision to restore the citizenship question to the census, the Commerce Department has cited the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which relies on data about the voting-eligible population, as a justification. That is a laughable assertion. The administration has never demonstrated any interest or committed any effort to defending the voting rights of U.S. citizens. Indeed, on many prominent voting and civil rights cases, the Trump administration has asked the Department of Justice to switch sides after the Obama administration had intervened to protect voting rights. And adding the citizenship question to the census goes against the intent of the Voting Rights Act by discouraging members of minority groups from seeking full political representation.
Adding the citizenship status question to the 2020 census is perhaps the most insidious manifestation of the anti-Latino bigotry President Trump has exhibited since his first day on the campaign trail. California, where an undercount of the population could result in the loss of a congressional seat, is suing to prevent the question from making it on to the census, and at least 11 other states have indicated they will sue the Trump administration over the question (in part because it is being rushed through without the vetting that other changes to the census have received). And legislative efforts to protect the integrity of the census have been brought forward by Democratic members of Congress.
Ultimately, however, the only way in which the rights of citizenship can be defended is by their persistent use. U.S. Latinos must awaken to this threat to our political rights and vote in 2018 and 2020. Because after the census, our votes may not be given their fair weight.
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