Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
It shouldn’t be a controversial question: How many people live in the United States of America? But the Trump administration and their Republican water-carriers have turned it into a partisan political football by insisting on including a question about citizenship on the census forms. The result, demographers widely agree, will be a vast undercount of the American population – to the political benefit of the GOP.
Critics opposing the inclusion of a question about citizenship say that it will frighten noncitizens and vulnerable immigrant communities into underreporting. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2010 there were around 9 million “mixed status” families, in which some members are citizens and others not. Surely such households might choose to avoid the census completely in 2020, rather than give up citizenship information that might later be used against them. Leaders in Latino communities have voiced serious concerns before about fears among immigrant populations about misuse of government data. As far back as last November, a researcher at the Census Bureau’s Center for Survey Measurement warned that those fears “may present a barrier to participation in the 2020 census,” which is “particularly troubling due to the disproportionate impact on hard-to-count areas.”
Whether someone is a documented citizen or not has no influence on whether they utilize public services – roads, hospitals, schools, police departments, emergency responders. Undercounting immigrants will result in all of those resources being stretched thinner in more racially diverse (and especially more heavily Latino) areas. And because the census happens only once a decade, any potential undercount could impact states and cities for a long time to come.
The US census has not asked about citizenship status since the 1950s (though it does appear on the yearly American Community Survey the Census Bureau administers to give a fuller picture of America’s population). The US constitution requires only a count of persons – not citizens – to determine representation. Asking about citizenship, especially in a political climate hostile to immigrants, will result in noncitizens and even legal immigrants – still fearful of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – not being counted. Not counting the actual population of districts, cities and states means that the undercounted localities will get fewer federal resources than they actually need, and will have fewer representatives in Congress.
But that is perhaps the point. California is already suing over it, with the state’s attorney general and secretary of state harshly criticizing the move to add the citizenship question as anti-immigrant. Like so much of what President Trump and his administration do, this move by the Commerce Department is a thinly veiled attack on people of color, and an unearned benefit to Trump’s largely white, self-segregating base. The places that will be most hurt by undercounting will be places that have higher populations of immigrants, documented and not. According to the Texas Tribune, for example, the state was projected to gain three congressional seats that it may now lose because of undercounting. And immigrants are more likely to live in blue states than red ones, meaning that this census change could kneecap Democrats in future elections.
That, of course, is the point, too. For all we hear about “liberal bubbles” in big, diverse cities, the truth is that Republican voters have decided they would rather be ensconced in their own ideology than challenged with inconveniences like data or reporting or scientific consensus. Their elected representatives built and fueled this mentality, because it benefits them in the short term, with a pliable, increasingly ignorant and hyperpartisan base.
This hostility to facts and fairness didn’t start with Trump, although he has brought it to new levels. The GOP has been sowing the seeds of paranoia and distrust among its base for decades, sending the message that things like “science” and “education” and “journalism” and “truth” are all part of a broad liberal conspiracy to undermine traditional values. Look at how many Republicans treat scientific consensus, from evolution to climate change: With a shrug and a “that’s just your opinion, man.” Some Republicans have insisted, against all evidence but with legislative power behind them, that abortion both causes breast cancer and can be reversed, and that homosexuality can be cured with a little therapy.
All around the world, adults point to education as a pathway to prosperity, and they are correct – more schooling almost always means better life prospects. The exception: Republicans in the United States, 58% of whom, according to the Pew Research Center, think colleges have a negative effect on the country. And 85% of whom say the news media has a negative effect.
Never mind that an undereducated population is bad for democracy – it’s good for the GOP, and so Republicans are happy to embrace intentional ignorance. They’re so wedded to know-nothing-ism that, with this new census, we won’t even know what our population is. But along the way we will scare some immigrants, give the GOP an unearned electoral advantage, and throw their base some red meat. And it will be another win for the Republican Party’s efforts to further enshrine ignorance as an American value.