Lawsuit reveals flawed census citizenship question

By Prem Calvin Prashad

The decision to include a specific question on citizenship on the upcoming 2020 Census is a controversial one, long suspected to be motivated by politics rather than practicality. The U.S. Census is intended to count all persons living in America, including non-citizens. Critics suggest that the inclusion of such a question, for the first time in nearly 70 years, is designed to suppress cooperation and response rates in predominantly immigrant communities.

Now evidence revealed in a federal lawsuit suggests that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has long intended to add the question to the Census, well before such an addition was subject to rigorous review and over the objections of staff, committees and previous directors.

Critics include former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt, who led the 2000 Census and said the question would almost certainly discourage cooperation and run contrary to the constitutional mandate to “count every person.”

The consequences of an inaccurate census are far-reaching. The Census guides and informs federal funding as well as determining seats in Congress and the Electoral College.

For states like New York that are expecting to gradually lose population — either due to faster growth in other states or net migration — this will overstate the change in population. States that stand to gain from migration, such as Texas, will also lose in that the true extent of the population increase and by extension their representation in Congress will be suppressed.

In response to these concerns, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit June 8 on behalf of immigrants’ rights groups, including the New York Immigrant Coalition and Make the Road New York, which operates in Queens, claiming that the return of the citizenship question was motivated by “discriminatory animus.”

Officially, the Trump administration has maintained that the reason for the inclusion of the citizenship question is to “protect voting rights” and they are doing so by way of guidance originating in the Justice Department. However, the ACLU litigation has forced the release of government records, including e-mails, in which Ross was adamant about reintroducing the “citizenship question” long before the purported date of the DOJ request in December 2017. The documents referenced conversations with Steve Bannon, at the time a key White House adviser and avowed “nationalist” who has long opposed immigrations in all forms.

Though a key justification for the inclusion of the citizenship question is that such a question appears on the American Community Survey, which compiles data for the Census, the origins of that justification have been found to come from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. He is infamous for inventing claims of voter fraud perpetrated by undocumented immigrants without evidence. Kobach’s investigation stalled after near universal opposition from all states to turning over voter data.

Critics have long held that such “voter fraud” investigations serve only to purge legal voters from voter rolls and increase the difficulty minorities would have in reaching the polls.

Kobach’s emails revealed that he, too, had spoken with Bannon about the “citizenship question.” In light of this evidence, the federal government’s credibility is highly doubtful.

After testifying that the process had been initiated by the DOJ in December, Ross has backtracked on his testimony, admitting that the notion of a citizenship question was being discussed long before September. With the evidence that has come to light, the federal lawsuit will proceed to trial in the fall.

Legal or not, all New Yorkers would lose in a Census that intentionally attempts to undercount undocumented persons and their families for political reasons.

The ACLU investigation has revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt the architect of the proposed changes to the Census to be anti-immigrant forces determined to suppress the votes of immigrants who are citizens. The idea that such data was necessary to protect voter rights was always a flimsy justification and now a complete fabrication.