The U.S. Census is so foundational to this country that its mandate resides in Article 1 of the Constitution — a requirement to count the population once every 10 years. The results determine congressional representation and the distribution of federal spending. Its success depends on trust that the information people volunteer will be held in confidence. Its accuracy is vital to businesses, researchers, public-policy planners and a host of organizations that draw on its results.
Now comes the Trump administration with a last-minute addition to a carefully tested 10-question form that will ask every individual in the country point-blank whether he or she is a citizen. Perhaps that sounds innocuous. It is not. And the danger goes far beyond the fear it is already fueling in immigrant communities across the country.
According to State Demographer Susan Brower, Minnesota receives $8 billion a year in federal funding tied to an accurate census count. An undercount would mean less money for schools, health care, roads and other services. And the stakes aren’t just monetary. This state is already on the bubble for losing a congressional seat. An undercount could diminish political representation for all Minnesotans.
To get an accurate count, Minnesota, like other states, mobilizes a vast network of community organizations that make census outreach part of their mission. Adding a controversial and unneeded citizenship question complicates those efforts. It is unneeded because the American Community Survey, an annual sampling, for years has had a citizenship question, along with more detailed immigration questions. But those results are not used to determine congressional districts. Which brings us to what may be the more insidious purpose of the citizenship question: a move by an increasingly nativist administration to more directly tie political representation to citizenship. Tellingly, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, last known for his failed attempt to extract voter-specific data from all 50 states in the fruitless hunt for widespread voter fraud, said he has been asking President Donald Trump to add the question.
It is possible that the lack of concern over a likely undercount stems from the belief that noncitizens literally should not count. Already some Republicans have said that states with seats due in part to larger noncitizen populations have an unfair advantage over other states — as if those who live, work and pay taxes here without the benefit of full citizenship are somehow less deserving of a political voice or funding for needed services. They should be reminded of a unanimous Supreme Court decision in 2016 that found districts can be drawn based on total population, not just eligible voters. “As the Framers of the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment comprehended, representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote,” the opinion said.
It’s important to note that the universe of noncitizens stretches well beyond undocumented immigrants. According to the American Community Survey, there are 22 million noncitizens in the U.S., including legal permanent residents, international students, refugees, asylees and those here on work visas. Given Trump’s attempts to ratchet back legal immigration, few could blame any of those groups for being apprehensive about answering a citizenship question.
The wording of the question, sent to Congress on Thursday, makes no attempt to find out whether the individual is here on a legal immigrant status. Curiously, it does seek to determine whether an individual was born in Puerto Rico — even though all Puerto Ricans are native-born U.S. citizens. This comes just as many Puerto Ricans have left the island for the mainland after a shamefully lacking response by the Trump administration to deal with the prolonged, post-Hurricane Maria blackouts that continue there. Also without explanation: a request that naturalized citizens supply the year of naturalization. One can only wonder how this aids voting-rights enforcement.
States have much at stake, and are justified in fighting back against this blatant attempt to politicize the census. Minnesota, thankfully, has joined more than a dozen other states in lawsuits that would block the question from being added.