Immigrants at center of partisan brawl over US census

Published March 28, 2018, 9:53 AM

by AJ Siytangco

By Agence France-Presse

Washington’s plan to ask about citizenship during the US census drew sharp rebukes from Democrats on Tuesday, setting the stage for a bruising partisan brawl with electoral implications.

President Donald Trump’s plan was announced late Monday by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who said an accurate count allows for proper enforcement of the Voting Rights Act — aimed at prohibiting racial discrimination at the polls — among other advantages.

New US citizens wave American flags at a naturalization ceremony on March 20, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)
New US citizens wave American flags at a naturalization ceremony on March 20, 2018, in Los Angeles, California.

But Democrats said the move will lead to the undercounting of legal immigrants, distorting the US electoral balance.

California sued to block the move.

Only US citizens are allowed to register to vote. But Trump has long claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 presidential election, without providing proof.

The US Constitution mandates a count of its population every decade, with the next estimate coming in 2020. The estimate is used for many purposes, including apportioning congressional seats and allocating federal funds for schools, hospitals, and other programs.

The Census Bureau, part of the Commerce Department, has not asked about citizenship in the 10-year survey since 1950.

The Department said the 10-year census question will mirror a query used on an annual census survey, which asks: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” It further queries whether the person was born in the US, in a US territory like Puerto Rico, to a parent overseas, or is naturalized and, if so, the date of naturalization.

Ross defended the decision as a common-sense move.

The 10-year census is “relied on for a myriad of important government decisions, including apportionment of congressional seats among states, enforcement of voting rights laws, and allocation of federal funds,” Ross said in a memo.

“These are foundational elements of our democracy, and it is therefore incumbent upon the department and the Census Bureau to make every effort to provide a complete and accurate decennial census.”

‘Fear and distrust’

But the decision drew immediate rebukes from leading Democrats, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“This detrimental change will inject fear and distrust into vulnerable communities, and cause traditionally undercounted communities to be even further under-represented, financially excluded and left behind,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi also castigated Trump for disregarding the views of earlier Census Bureau directors from both parties who objected to the question, and to recent census staff research that pointed to worries in immigrant communities that census takers will pass data to immigration officials.

On Tuesday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed suit against the move, saying on Twitter that “California simply has too much to lose.”

“Field representatives conducting surveys and other experiments are already reporting widespread and unprecedented fear among test respondents,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

“Adding a question on citizenship at this time would only seek to fan the flames of fear and distrust in the census, further risking depressed response rates.”

If minority populations do not participate in the survey out of fear for themselves or their relatives, that could result in a large undercounting of those populations.

That, in turn, could have political implications by under-representing Democratic-leaning cities where many immigrants live.

Stanford sociologist Matthew Snipp said the implications on political representation could be especially serious in Texas, California, and Arizona where the Hispanic population is particularly robust.

Those backing the decision included a trio of Republican Senators, Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who had lobbied for the move and praised the decision.

“It is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable, given the wide-ranging impacts it will have on US policy,” Cruz said. “A question on citizenship is a reasonable, commonsense addition to the census.”

The 2010 census estimated the US population at 308.8 million. Experts now estimate the US has 327 million people.