The last-minute move by the administration of Republican President Donald Trump to include a question on the 2020 census about citizenship may just be curiosity. But the Democrats certainly don't think so.
They think it's an intentional effort to remove illegal immigrants, or drive them into hiding – to cut down on both immigrants, and potential Democratic voters.
A dozen states have already filed lawsuits challenging the inclusion of the citizenship question.
New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, has filed a multistate lawsuit, joined by officials in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington.
California filed a separate lawsuit.
You may notice the state of Texas, run by Republicans, is not among the protesting states.
“A question on citizenship is a reasonable, commonsense addition to the census,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said in a statement March 27, noting that he was among those who requested its inclusion.
“The census is supposed to count everyone,” protested Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. “This is a blatant and illegal attempt by the Trump administration to undermine that goal, which will result in an undercount of the population and threaten federal funding for our state and cities.”
The United States Constitution requires that every resident of the United States be counted in a census every ten years – whether or not they are citizens.
The results are used to redraw political boundaries, plus allocate hundreds of billions of federal dollars. Census data are used by governments and corporations for planning decisions.
Opponents said the added citizenship question would depress response to the census from noncitizens and even legal immigrants. Critics accused the administration of adding the question to reduce the population count in the predominantly Democratic areas where more immigrants reside, before state and national redistricting in 2021.
Several critics, including former census directors, protest that it will make families that have illegal immigrants resist being counted at all – even those who are citizens.
And, critics say, that in turn can impact various government actions keyed to census numbers – including allocation of congressional districts among the states, billions in payments for Medicaid and other healthcare benefits, highway construction, education, and dozens of other areas.
Texas is projected to add three congressional seats to the 36 it already has after the 2020 census. The citizenship question could reduce the census count enough to remove at least one of those, critics argue.
"Getting a full and accurate count shouldn’t be a Democratic issue and it shouldn’t be a Republican issue," said state Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who chairs the Texas House Border Caucus. "This is a Texas issue."
The citizenship question appearing on the 2020 census survey, at the behest of Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross Jr., would be the first time in 70 years that it's been there.
Critics last week released a January letter to Ross from six former census directors saying they were "deeply concerned" that putting in the citizenship question would “considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.”
“There is a great deal of evidence that even small changes in survey question order, wording and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality and truthfulness of response,” warned the former directors, from both Democratic and Republican administrations.
“The effect of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census on data quality and census accuracy, therefore, is completely unknown,” the letter said.
In addition, the Census Scientific Advisory Committee, made up of economists, engineers, prominent demographers, and others said in a statement that the decision was based on “flawed logic.”
It not only could threaten the accuracy and confidentiality of the census count, but would likely make it more expensive to conduct, they said – plus jeopardize the Census Bureau's reputation of nonpartisanship.
Commerce Secretary Ross had added it just a few days before the April 1 cutoff for proposed questions on the census survey – too late, critics said, to be included in a test survey in Rhode Island to see what impact it might have on counting immigrant populations.
The request initially had come from Trump's Department of Justice, which said additional citizenship data was needed to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.
But Democrats point out the government has been enforcing the Voting Rights Act for more than half a century, since its passage in 1965, without the citizenship question being included in the census.
Many critics see this as part of the White House’s hostility toward immigrants — and an attempt to depress the 2020 population count in immigrant-rich Democratic areas before redistricting in 2021.
With the Democrats hoping to take over the U.S House, this battle has just begun.