In a last-minute move that would give Republicans an advantage in maintaining control of the House of Representatives, the Trump administration is reinstating a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. Coming from an administration that has been hostile toward immigrants, the change was not surprising, but it’s galling nonetheless. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced the decision Monday, less than a week before the Census Bureau, which his department oversees, is supposed to send final questions for the 2020 census to Congress. If his decision stands — the attorney general of California has filed a lawsuit to block it, and other elected officials are preparing to do so — it would be the first time in 70 years that the federal government has asked people to specify their citizenship status on the census form sent to every household.
This is important because the census count determines how many House seats each state gets. The census is also used to determine the allocation of more than $600 billion in federal spending, including Medicaid, food stamps and grants to schools. Asking about citizenship would reduce responses from immigrant families, which are already less likely than others to answer government surveys and are terrified by President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and statements. An inaccurate count is likely to provide more representation to states with fewer immigrants and higher response rates and take seats away from states like California where response rates would be lower. Given the geography of American politics, that would probably lead to more power for Republicans, and less for Democrats. Experts say even citizens and permanent residents would be less likely to respond if they have relatives who are undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Ross’s decision was based on the disingenuous argument that the Department of Justice needs to know the citizenship status of residents in each census tract so it can better protect the rights of minority voters under the Voting Rights Act. Even putting aside the laughable notion that this administration cares about minority voting rights, this argument is bunkum — the Justice Department has been enforcing that law without access to such data for decades. The last census that asked people to report their citizenship status was conducted in 1950, 15 years before the Voting Rights Act became law. What’s more, the Justice Department already has access to citizenship data through the American Community Survey, which is conducted every year.