On July 21, President Donald Trump signed an unprecedented memo directing the commerce secretary to collect data on undocumented immigrants and remove them from the final population totals. The memo follows up on a July 2019 executive order that assigned the Census Bureau to determine how many residents are US citizens.
It remains unclear how this plan — seemingly a workaround the Supreme Court decision that blocked the administration from including a question about citizenship on the census — would be enforced or survive a legal challenge. However, removing undocumented immigrants from the population totals would have the effect of distorting the count, thus diminishing political representation and federal funding for states with larger undocumented populations.
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The decennial census, enshrined in the US Constitution, was conceived to count all residents of the country — regardless of citizenship or eligibility to vote — as a basis for taxation and the regular reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives among the various states. In March 2018, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that for the first time in 70 years, the 2020 census would include a question about citizenship status for all households. After months of court battles, the Supreme Court issued a complicated ruling that kept the question off the census, noting that the administration’s rationale for adding the item was contrived.
Nonetheless, recent surveys by civil society groups indicate that Latino communities remain fearful of participating in the census: as a result of the controversy, many mistakenly believe that a question about citizenship status will still appear and fear that census data could be shared with law enforcement or other government agencies. Now, the Trump administration seems determined to work around the Supreme Court ruling, noting that it is the “policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status under the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
The ramifications of removing undocumented immigrants from the count loom large as census information is used not just for congressional apportionment, but also for the allocation of an estimated $900 billion in federal funding for programs on issues such as nutrition, public health, housing, transportation, education, law enforcement and environmental protection. International human rights law — including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) — recognizes the rights to education, health and an adequate standard of living.
Distorted census results would damage the protection of these fundamental human rights by putting communities with large immigrant populations at risk of limited access to essential services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this seems particularly punishing. Further, an undercount would place certain states at a political disadvantage in terms of proportional representation in Washington, undermining the fundamental democratic principle that voters should have equal power to choose their representatives. Removing undocumented immigrants from the census count would ensure that everyone in the country, both citizens and residents, ultimately suffer.
The Trump administration has come to be associated with a xenophobic, exclusionary and race-based conception of American identity. Indeed, President Donald Trump has stood apart from all of his recent predecessors in displaying open hostility toward immigrants, asylum seekers and other vulnerable and minority groups. The president has proposed dramatic new restrictions on legal immigration and pledged to abrogate birthright citizenship — the constitutional guarantee that those born in the United States, whether or not their parents are citizens, have a right to citizenship. As a result, this proposal, beyond its harmful practical impact, has been criticized as an effort to enforce that identity.
The proposal can also be seen as part of a larger pattern in which politicians seek to define American political membership, determine voters’ political identity according to demography and then maximize their chances at the polls through the manipulation of district boundaries or the rules of voting eligibility. In effect, a census that undercounts immigrant populations and distorts reapportionment could amount to an enormous partisan gerrymandering exercise. Like all such efforts, this would undermine the fundamental democratic principle that voters should have equal power to choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters, further eroding the idea that elected officials should serve and appeal to all segments of society. Everyone in the country, both citizens and residents, would ultimately suffer from such an outcome.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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