The citizenship question: Trump’s pet project

On Jan. 15, Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to add its controversial question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census. As the judge declared in his ruling, the citizenship question could dissuade more than 24 million residents from filling out the census. The Trump administration is expected to appeal the decision, with the U.S. Supreme Court making its decision before June.

As I wrote in April of 2018 in The Lakeville Journal in the column, “Prepare to Leave a Blank in the 2020 Census”, the decision of the Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, who has oversight over the Census Bureau, to add a question about citizenship status had been contrary to the recommendations of the Census Bureau. The question asks directly, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”  Since many immigrants live in “mixed-status” families, they are justifiably worried about divulging the status(es) of members of their household, particularly given the anti-immigrant policies of this administration. 

The likely undercount in immigrant communities alluded to by Judge Furman is important for several reasons. First, since the count is used to determine congressional seats and Electoral College votes given to each state, an undercount would lead to proportionately greater representation for rural districts with small immigrant populations than for urban districts with large immigrant populations.  Second, the undercount would skew the distribution of $800 billion in federal tax dollars to schools, roads and other public institutions and services toward low-immigrant rural districts and away from high-immigrant urban districts.

It is important to remember that the 10-year census mandated by the U.S. Constitution asks that the federal government count every person living within its borders. It does not ask that the federal government determine who is a citizen or here legally or illegally. Nor does the Constitution suggest in any way that taxes, legislators or spending should be related to the citizenship status of residents.

A question about citizenship, asked between 1820 and 1950, was removed in the 1960 census on the ground that it would depress the counts of “hard-to-count groups,” particularly Hispanics and noncitizens.  Despite the question being considered discriminatory for 60 years, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has argued that the citizenship question is important to enforce the Voting Rights Act and prevent voter fraud. Ironically, the Voting Rights Act, passed under President Johnson, was meant to prevent discriminatory policies and practices related to voting, and thus to ensure equal representation for nonwhite and immigrant voters. 

Yet, as America becomes browner, the Trump administration has also done what it can to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act by using the myth of voter fraud to pass laws aimed at keeping nonwhites and immigrants out of official counts and the voting booth. Most of us will remember that, after the 2016 election, the president’s conviction that “millions of fraudulent votes” were cast led to his creation of his Presidential Commission on Election Integrity. Though the commission was run and peopled by people convinced of voter fraud, it was terminated early — a pleasant surprise for an administration that isn’t known to back down on unproven convictions. Not surprisingly, documents produced before Judge Furman showed that the Commission had found no proof of widespread voter fraud.

Judge Furman’s decision is the first in half a dozen lawsuits concerning the citizenship question. In addition to another case before Judge Furman, a second trial over the question began earlier this month in California, and another is scheduled to begin in Maryland on Jan. 22.

Since the Bureau of Census must finalize all questions by June in order to have the census printed in time, the Trump Administration has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to bypass the usual appeal procedure and quickly rule on the case. The administration may hope for a friendly hearing from his new Supreme Court dominated by conservatives. If the Supreme Court does allow this controversial question in the 2020 census, I continue to urge that we leave it blank.


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. What interests her these days are the complications of civil society.