Who’s Politicizing the Census?

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra speaks at the second annual Women’s March in Los Angeles, California, January 20, 2018. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)
Democrats’ resistance to asking about citizenship is about playing to their base, not about ensuring the accuracy of the count.

The announcement that the 2020 census will include a question asking whether household members are citizens was greeted with howls of protest from the left. They accused the administration of politicizing the decennial ritual mandated by the Constitution. The census has provided the country with vital information about the population since 1790. But in the view of liberals, President Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the census, are using the process to play to the Republicans’ right-wing base that hates immigrants, while also seeking to suppress representation in blue states.

Within a day of the announcement, twelve states were preparing to sue the government to force it to eliminate the question from the short census form that most Americans will receive. In the view of Democrats, the outcome of that lawsuit will help determine not only whether there is an accurate count of those living in the country but also a fair reapportionment process that will go a long way toward determining control of the House of Representatives in the decade that follows the census.

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But the fury of the Democrats and the assumption on the part of most of the liberal media that this move is, like the “Muslim” travel ban and the reversal of DACA protections for Dreamers and their families, one more example of the administration’s animus toward immigrants is more than a little disingenuous. Far from sabotaging the census, inquiring about citizenship is a reasonable, even traditional approach to counting the population.

Part of the controversy rests on the notion that Ross’s department is drastically departing from existing practices.

It is true that a question about citizenship has not been on the short form that most Americans get during the last six censuses dating back to 1960. But it was included as late as 1950. And even while that is true — and it is a fact that was predictably mischaracterized by White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders when she was asked about it on Tuesday — the citizenship question has never been absent from the long form that a smaller number of Americans receive. Moreover, it is on other government questionnaires that are distributed outside of the normal census process, such as the annual American Community Survey.

What’s also obvious is that knowing the total number of citizens, as opposed to legal or illegal aliens, is useful information. Inquiring about citizenship status when you’re counting people is hardly intrusive or an abuse, let alone illegal, as previous court challenges to various questions have reaffirmed.

Democrats say that illegal aliens, as well as legal immigrants who are not citizens but who may be living with those that are here without permission, may be highly reluctant to answer the census questions. If true, that could have an impact on the numbers and, as Democrats fear, result in an undercounting of population in  areas with heavy concentrations of illegal immigrants, making it harder for local governments to plan and get federal aid. Even more important than that, if this assertion were correct, it could result in states with large numbers of illegal immigrants not getting as many congressional districts as they might have if every person — legal and illegal — were included in the count.

But the assumption that illegal and legal aliens were happy to fill out these forms in 2010 but won’t do so again is unfounded. It is highly unlikely that illegal aliens are filling out census questionnaires — or any government survey — even if the word “citizen” is banished from the form. Illegal immigrants and even those with legal resident status tend to be extremely skittish — for understandable reasons — about doing anything that might, even in theory, attract attention from the government. The number of illegal immigrants shunning the census if it includes a question about citizenship isn’t likely to be much greater than the total of those who did so in 2010 when there was no such question.

The second point is just as obvious but is also clearly rejected by liberals. Including illegal immigrants in the count so as to ensure that states with large numbers of them get maximum representation in the House is inherently fraudulent. While the goal of the census is to count every person residing in the country, the notion that its purpose is also to ensure that those who are subject to deportation if caught are as entitled to fair representation in Congress as U.S. citizens is as bizarre as it is untenable.

Including illegal immigrants in the count so as to ensure that states with large numbers of them get maximum representation in the House is inherently fraudulent.

What liberals are doing here with their hyperbolic accusations is similar to their response to voter-ID laws. They take a reasonable, even anodyne measure, that, if presented to the American people would receive almost universal support (as is the case with polling about voter-ID laws, which, according to Gallup, show that 81 percent of whites and 77 percent of non-whites back them), and treat it as a plot against minorities and the Left.

Seen from that perspective, the claim that the administration is politicizing the census has it backwards. It is the Left that is playing a political numbers game here, not Trump.

The goal of counting illegal aliens in the census is not about accuracy but, as with the sanctuary-city movement, about blurring the distinction between citizens and non-citizens so as to advance an agenda of amnesty for illegal immigrants. A Democratic party that, its unwillingness to make a deal with Republicans to extend DACA benefits to Dreamers notwithstanding, thinks its fortunes will be boosted by championing illegal immigrants is bound to resist any effort that reinforces this proper and legal distinction.

Given the blatantly political nature of some of the appeals courts that were packed with Obama appointees from 2009 to 2016, it’s impossible to know whether the legal challenge to the census plan will be successful.

But while the Left once again is implicitly accusing Trump of racism as well as an attempt to skew the census count in favor of red states, Democrats are also handing the GOP an issue that could help motivate the conservative base. No matter what Democratic attorneys general say in court, most voters are likely to think there’s nothing unreasonable about asking census respondents if they are citizens. Though, as with their attacks on voter-ID laws, Democrats will deny they are seeking to facilitate wrongdoing, an attempt to suppress the citizenship question is likely to strike most Republican voters as tantamount to an attempt to commit fraud.

Though it plays to their base, a refusal to count citizens is not a winning issue for Democrats, and it’s an opening for the GOP. Rather than pressuring Ross and Trump to back down, Republicans are likely to applaud a decision to stand firm in order to defend the integrity of the system.


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