Citizenship 2020 Census Question Is Another Effort to Bolster US GOP White Power -- And Presents Potential for Law Enforcement and ICE Abuse


BuzzFlash Editor Mark Karlin wrote this commentary on the perils for non-citizens and non-whites about including a citizenship question in the 2020 census before revelations that it was indeed geared to be advantageous electorally and in terms of federal government programs to whites.

IThe prejudicial goals of the question were found in the computer of a GOP gerrymandering strategist, Thomas Hofeller, after his death by his estranged daughter. According to a May 19 article in the Independent:

The architect of the Trump administration’s effort to add a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 US census once wrote in near-explicit terms that the addition would benefit white people and Republicans while hurting minorities, according to newly uncovered documents…..

Asking census respondents whether they are US citizens “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites”, wrote [the late] Tom Hofeller, the mastermind behind the effort and an expert on redistricting for the Republican National Committee.

The Supreme Court by a narrow 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice Roberts siding for the moment with the four liberal judges, ruled that the citizenship question was not to be included because the “true reasons” for its use were not being disclosed by the Trump administration attorneys. The June, 2019 SCOTUS decision has thrown the 2020 census into chaos, after Trump asserted that he will find a way to get the citizenship question added to the census even though the census forms are already being printed at the time of this posting.

2010 census form. (Government Document)

2010 census form. (Government Document)

Originally Posted in April, 2018


It is not hard to connect Donald Trump's recent memorandum to deploy National Guard Troops on the Mexican border with the 2020 census question that will ask if the respondents are citizens. Both efforts, like various forms of Republican voter suppression, are meant to bolster the power of white people in the US at the expense of an inclusive nation.

In fact, Ari Berman of the Nation was recently interviewed on Democracy Now and cited the voter issue as the official reason given for including the citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Berman views this as an ironic justification:

Well, I think if you look at who the request is coming from, it's coming from the Department of Justice, run by Jeff Sessions. And they say they need this question to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which is hysterical, because the Trump Justice Department has no interest in enforcing the Voting Rights Act, and, in fact, is actively trying to subvert the Voting Rights Act. This is a smokescreen to try to depress responses from immigrant communities, so that immigrant communities get far less resources than other communities, with the census.

However, the invocation of the Voting Rights Act raises concerns. One can infer the possibility that the names of those who fill out the census form would no longer be anonymous. This possibility would send a chill through even many citizens, who understandably fear the prospect of their personal information being revealed to government agencies. As Robert Shapiro of the Brookings Institute speculates,

Ross and Sessions explicitly tied the collection of 2020 Census information to federal law enforcement. That’s what makes his directive so remarkable and so dangerous.

So, Berman is correct in his cynicism about what officially precipitated the census citizenship question, but is perhaps not cynical enough. Trump's longstanding obsession with highly rare illegal voting may be in play in the 2020 census, but enforcing the Voting Rights Act is just a Trojan horse. That official excuse, nevertheless, may result in removing the anonymity of the responders.

However, Berman is on target that cutting down the number of non-citizen immigrants who respond to the census would inevitably mean fewer resources for those communities. It also importantly means that they would not be included in determining the size of congressional districts. Also, citizens who live with non-citizens may be hesitant to their report household size, and may skip the census, as may citizens who have baggage with the criminal legal system.

The national census has been administered every 10 years since 1790, as mandated in the Constitution. 

Shapiro of Brookings estimates that approximately 24 million people "would have good reason to skip the 2020 census if they believe their names and addresses could be shared with law enforcement."

ABC News reports that Census Bureau staffers tried out the citizenship question in field sampling last fall, and it was a failure:

The Census Bureau warned last fall, that based on focus groups and pre-testing for the 2020 Census, its staff members were reporting increased fear among immigrants that the information they volunteered would be used against them and their families...

The Census Bureau staffer reports include multiple examples – including participants providing incorrect information or leaving family members off the roster, attempts to break off interviews, and people who appeared “visibly nervous” – as evidence for their concerns that what they were seeing could foretell less participation in the 2020 Census and that “hard-to-count populations” would be missed.

The Trump administration is planning to go ahead with the question anyway. It appeals to Trump's white supremacist voter base, and assists in the GOP's redistricting strategies. Remember that the 2020 census will determine the number of congressional districts a state receives for the next 10 years, through 2030.

According to ThinkProgress, 18 state attorneys general are suing the Trump administration to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 census. They are challenging both the policy of including the question and the slapdash way that it was determined to be included on the census form.

The most compelling arguments for eliminating the citizenship question from the 2020 census, however, come not from the courts, but from the heart. Yatziri Tovar, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, made that clear in a recent commentary published on Truthout, in which he concluded:

Now, New Yorkers and many around the nation are saying: We refuse to accept changes to the census that will spark fear over whether to participate in a process that has long been at the heart of our democracy.

Our coalition is broad because we know that this threat would not only affect immigrant families like mine, but all our families and communities. The census affects how $600 billion in state and local resources are spent on our communities. Resources for schools, hospitals, housing are all on the line.

It is our right and our duty to make sure that every resident of this country is counted, regardless of immigration status.

The census should not be a vehicle for inciting fear and political gamesmanship. It should be an accurate reflection of those persons living within the United States.