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Trump Wants to Reframe the Census to Fit His Definition of America, Not Protect Americans

The addition of a citizen question isn't a bureaucratic nuance, it's the soft edge of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda.

"So while the decennial census should be a comprehensive social survey, it has no business questioning our citizenship." (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

"So while the decennial census should be a comprehensive social survey, it has no business questioning our citizenship." (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The purpose of an accurate census count is to help the government understand the people for whom it is responsible — full stop. A fully inclusive census is vital for informing policy-making, whether determining how many roadways are required for a region’s population, monitoring local public health trends or ensuring our tax dollars are fairly allocated to school districts.

Trump’s move to add a citizenship question to the census — announced this week by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — follows months of intense opposition across Washington and civil society. Asking about citizenship status (a question that federal authorities have deliberately left off the census since 1950) risks alienating many prospective respondents and depressing the count of our population. Despite seemingly neutral wording, under an administration that is notoriously hostile to immigrants, the question shades the otherwise banal census form with a chilling tone of “papers, please.”

Reinstating the citizenship question isn’t a mere bureaucratic tweak, but the soft edge of Trump’s agenda to further isolate and disenfranchise immigrant communities.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and President Donald Trump at the White House on Oct. 24, 2017. Evan Vucci / AP file

The administration deceptively claims that a more accurate count of citizens will provide a more complete picture of the country and help the government ensure the “integrity of the vote.” However, in citing the Voting Rights Act as a reason for linking the 2020 census to citizenship, the administration suggests that its primary motivation is politics, not fairness or accuracy: Tightened screening of voter rolls is an inherently risky, often politicized and racially charged process. And ultimately, the net effect of an inaccurate census count is to undermine, not protect, the integrity of the vote, since it will likely result in less representative electoral districts and even more skewed representation in Congress.

So while the decennial census should be a comprehensive social survey, it has no business questioning our citizenship.

The conception of citizenship over the years has evolved to reflect the shifting politics of race, identity, and clashing definitions of just who is and isn’t an American. Thomas Jefferson certainly wasn’t focused only on citizens when the census began in the 1700s; included in the initial questionnaire was the number of slaves per household — the enslaved black people who were deliberately excluded from citizenship. And, a few generations ago, the obstacle to naturalization facing many immigrants was a sweeping legal gauntlet that criminalized affiliation with the Communist Party or other “subversive” political activities.

Reinstating the citizenship question isn’t a mere bureaucratic tweak, but the soft edge of Trump’s agenda to further isolate and disenfranchise immigrant communities.

From ideological bias to racial exclusion, there’s always been an uneasy tension between citizenship rights and political criminalization, and now Trump is exploiting it to rupture a basic instrument of constitutional governance. The administration’s anti-immigrant crackdowns have already been gradually reshaping migration and border policies to make it harder to seek refugee protection and other legal relief, further narrowing avenues for obtaining citizenship. In light of Trump’s brazen politicization of immigration law, collecting citizenship data in the census suggests a perverse twist in the mechanics of government with the aim of hardening structural discrimination.

But, from its first day, the Trump administration had made it clear that the president is devoted to serving his right-wing base and happy to ignore those he considers less important, including people in poverty, immigrants, the LGBT community and countless other underrepresented groups. Under the new plan to inquire intrusively about citizenship status on the census, some of the most marginalized communities may now just be written off the official map.

The census hasn’t asked about citizenship for decades, for reasons both practical and principled. Initially, authorities dropped the question primarily because querying immigration status just wasn’t critical for getting accurate sample of the population. But today, civil rights advocates understand that including the question — especially in our rapidly diversifying society — would needlessly add confusion to the process and potentially depress response rates. Mixed-status households, with members of varying immigration backgrounds, might be particularly impacted.

From ideological bias to racial exclusion, there’s always been an uneasy tension between citizenship rights and political criminalization, and now Trump is exploiting it to rupture a basic instrument of constitutional governance.

Overall, the entire country would suffer from the erosion of the data’s integrity, which would project an inaccurate picture of who lives in America and how their family lives are structured. And if there’s one thing that truly matters for the census to serve its function, it is maximizing participation.

A person’s immigration status does matter in everyday life — the way race and ethnicity matter – but both race and citizenship are social constructs. Under a democratic government, social disparities should be researched and addressed by the state, but such artificially defined categories should not be a barrier to fair and equal treatment under the law.

Rights advocates have meanwhile mobilized against the “reform” as unconstitutional, discriminatory and simply unnecessary. The legal challenges waged by coalition of civil rights groups and state attorneys general argue that, insofar as census data is used to regulate elections, the system is far from perfect, but the government has long managed by using other supplementary survey data to aid with enforcing voting laws.

The net effect of an inaccurate census count is to undermine, not protect, the integrity of the vote.

We live in a world of Big Data, but not all data is created equal. Querying about citizenship would at best make the census process more chaotic and less effective; at worst, it risks validating and codifying citizenship status as threshold of social legitimacy for a growing immigrant population.

By attempting to reframe the census to fit his definition of America, Trump is stealthily molding a new political reality: A nation matching Trump’s vision of “great again” seems increasingly divided by race and borders, and less democratic for native- and foreign-born alike.

Nonetheless, the real America pushes beyond the borders of the White House’s cherry-picked Republic. The rising public resistance to the impending policy and brewing court battles show that, regardless of how they are reflected in the official survey, people will continue to voice their uncompromising demands for representation and equality before the law. Whether we exist on paper or not, we all have a right to stand and be counted.

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Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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