by Rachael Bovard
While the national debate continues over how secure our border will be, another aspect of illegal immigration continues to snake its way through the courts.
In 2017, the Trump Administration added a question about citizenship to the upcoming 2020 census; simply, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” Predictably, the administration was besieged by lawsuits from the Left, calling such a question unconstitutional, illegal, “a direct attack on our constitutional democracy,” and predicting it would “inject fear and distrust into vulnerable communities.”
Never mind that questions about citizenship appeared on every long form census from 1820 to 1950. On the short form census, questions about citizenship were asked through 2000, and continue to be asked on the American Community Survey, which goes out to one in 38 households annually (go figure, the Left has not raised ire about the citizenship question on the ACS). Moreover, countries around the world, including Australia, Germany, and Canada, ask about citizenship—maybe because the United Nations recommends it.
Also glossed over in the foamy outrage on the Left is the rank and hypocritical irony that census documents ask about race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, homeownership status, electricity bills, job status, age, and even the number of toilets in each house—but a question about citizenship is somehow considered too invasive.
There is ample evidence to suggest that the judge’s ruling was ill-informed and partisan. The Justice Department has already asked the Supreme Court to weigh in. But the legal analysis aside, there are two key aspects to this debate. The first is to knock down the claim that the Trump administration is using the census as a means toward deportation. They’re not. But the second is to explain why the determination of citizenship is vitally important to the basic functioning of representative government.
A Question about Citizenship, Not Legal Status
Chief among the Left’s talking points against posing a question about citizenship is that it will undercut participation in the Census, because illegal immigrants will fear deportation.
This is a handy talking point, but one not supported by facts. For starters, this is a question about citizenship—not legal status. Plenty of visa holders and permanent residents are here legally, but are not citizens. Moreover, the Census Bureau is limited by the “72-Year Rule,” which prohibits the disclosure of personally identifiable information to any agency or individual until 72 years after its collection.
In other words, even if a respondent were to scrawl “I’m here illegally” in red marker across the top of a census form, the Census Bureau would not send that person’s information to Immigration Customs and Enforcement. They’re legally barred from doing so.
But again, that’s not even what the citizenship question is asking. It’s not asking for legal status. Just whether or not you are an American. Surely, if the Left is worried about stoking fear of deportation, they might be equally as concerned with the question that asks if respondents are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.” If this question, which has existed on the Census for years, has not deterred participation of illegal immigrants, it’s unclear how asking about citizenship might.
Money and Power
Ultimately, though, the Left’s concern with Census participation does not arise out of some benevolent impulse toward civic participation. Rather, it stems from their two chief concerns, which govern everything: money and power.
Those on the Left, particularly the plaintiffs in this case, are preoccupied with ensuring as much federal money as possible flows to their states, which have very high illegal immigrant populations. (Indeed, in his ruling, Judge Jesse Furman sided with the plaintiffs, agreeing that their loss of “political power” to non-government organizations operating in New York and California was somehow a compelling argument against including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.)
In doing so, they are arguing implicitly for continued funding for sanctuary cities—cities that receive federal money, but explicitly refuse to enforce federal immigration laws against those who live there illegally.
But perhaps more important is the role that illegal immigrant populations play in something called apportionment—the drawing of congressional districts based upon population. After each census, House seats are reapportioned according to the population of each state. Electoral College votes, which elect the President of the United States, are apportioned according to the number of each state’s congressional representatives.
States with high percentages of illegal immigrants, have a distinct political advantage over states that do not. In fact, the state of Alabama recently filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau claiming that four House seats were wrongly apportioned based on inclusion of illegal populations.
The Left believes that any attempt to define the number of individuals here illegally will diminish their political power. Congressional districts would be redrawn based upon numbers of citizens, with more of them located in rural communities, which tend to vote Republican.
In other words, the Left is more concerned with weighing the rights of those here illegally than they are of American citizens. This is unsurprising. Access to power is the motivating force of the Left when it comes to immigration policy.
A Cynical Gambit
When the Left looks at illegal immigrants, they don’t see people; they see dollar signs and votes. Why else would they refuse to address our broken border security policy, which results in young children being victimized by sex traffickers, exploited by drug mules, and subject to dangerous physical conditions? Why else would they refuse to concede to any immigration reform except total amnesty and, essentially, open borders?
The census question has become a proxy for the Left’s thinly veiled agenda to maintain and control access to political power for decades to come. They’ve given up on attempting to convince their fellow Americans that their ideas are good. They’d just rather fling open the doors to America and create a new constituency out of whole cloth; one who can be convinced to believe they are in debt to Democrats.
It’s a cynical gambit, but a very real one. And it’s why attention must be paid at every level—to the big, flashy debates over the border wall, and the smaller, but equally important questions on the Census.
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Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters.