The Census Act requires the federal government to get a rough count of the U.S. population every ten years using the best available tools and techniques. The Trump administration says that to fulfill this duty in 2020, it will need to add a new question to the Census — one that asks respondents to disclose their citizenship status.
This is an odd claim. The primary objective of the Census is to count every human being in the United States, not every citizen. And a large body of research suggests that adding a citizenship question will discourage undocumented immigrants from participating — and thus lead the government to systematically undercount them. In fact, the administration’s own estimates suggest that adding the question will cause 6.5 million fewer American residents to respond. The Census Bureau’s chief scientist, meanwhile, has said that adding such a question is “very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship-status data than are available from administrative sources.”
Cynics suspected the inaccuracy is the point. After all, members of the Trump administration have argued that demographic change is a threat to the conservative movement’s political power and that the Democratic Party uses undocumented immigration to inflate its own political power. And undermining an accurate Census — in a manner that systematically undercounts undocumented immigrants — would address both of those purported problems. Census data shapes the contours of political districts and determines each state’s clout in the Electoral College. It dictates what proportion of federal funding for schools, roads, and libraries each state is entitled to. Thus, if the Trump administration found a facially neutral way of systematically undercounting residents in Democratic-leaning areas, it could inflate red America’s (already disproportionate) influence over our political system.
But the White House insisted its actual motives couldn’t have been more different: In truth, the administration wished to ask about citizenship out of a heartfelt desire to protect the political representation of African-Americans. In congressional testimony, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross explained that his bureau began considering the question only after the Department of Justice indicated that it needed such information to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There are a few reasons to view this claim with skepticism. For one thing, the Trump administration has not filed a single lawsuit aimed at enforcing the VRA since it took power; to the contrary, it has backed Voter ID laws that have been shown to depress nonwhite voter turnout. For another, six former leaders of the DOJ’s civil-rights division have said a citizenship question will “deter Latino and other voters from responding to the census” and thus “undermine enforcement of the [Voting Rights] Act.”
Oh, and internal Commerce Department memos have established that Ross was lying. The Justice Department did not initiate the request for the citizenship question — rather, the Commerce Department asked the DOJ to make such a request, the DOJ resisted for months, Ross’s department started looking around for another agency that would provide it with a rationale for adding a citizenship question, and then the DOJ finally acquiesced.
Nevertheless, when the Supreme Court held oral arguments in a case challenging the citizenship question on Tuesday, Chief Justice John Roberts (who gutted the VRA a few years ago) seemed to take the Trump administration at its word. Experts who watched the hearings were almost unanimous in their conclusion that the Court would uphold the question in a 5-4 vote.
On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump celebrated his impending triumph by ostensibly admitting his administration’s argument had been a fraud.
Cynics insist Trump’s disclosure will not undermine his administration’s case because the conservative justices don’t care if the Commerce Department is being honest about its intentions. These days, the cynics tend to be right.