Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution outlines who can serve in the United States House of Representatives and how many representatives each state should be allotted. In this article, the Constitution states that the “Enumeration shall be made…every…Term of Ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” This simply means that, to keep the number of Representatives from each state proportional to that state’s population, a census must be taken every ten years.
Today, the census is still conducted in-line with these regulations; the last was in 2010, and the next is in 2020. The census is conducted by the Department of Commerce, which is currently lead by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. In years past, the census has asked a wide range of questions, such as how many people live in each house.
In preparation for the 2020 census, Ross has stated that he plans to include a question on the census regarding the citizenship of the respondent. The justification for this question was to enforce the Voting Rights Act, according to Ross’s department. This falls outside the scope of the census as outlined by the Constitution and should not be included in the 2020 census.
As I remarked at the beginning, the purpose of the census is to evaluate the population of each state and distribute seats in the House of Representatives and votes in the Electoral College accordingly. The census also serves as a major determiner of which states get certain federal funding. The people living in each state, citizen or not, absorb resources and contribute to the state itself. All of them should be represented appropriately.
This question may cause many people not to participate in the census out of fear of exposing people illegally living in the U.S. or who fear their valid status in the U.S. may be in danger. Clearly, this question would cause the census to give an inaccurate measurement of the general population. All people living in the United States should be able to freely participate in the census without fear of retribution.
Under the Trump administration, anti-immigrant and anti-noncitizen rhetoric has skyrocketed. The FBI reported that the number of reported hate crimes increased almost 20 percent between 2016 and 2017. 2017 was the first year President Trump was in office. The correlation between Trump’s rhetoric, now propagated at the national level, and hate crimes is clear.
Due to the president’s history of making anti-immigrant statements, it is apparent he wished for a citizenship status question to be included in the census. It is unclear if Ross was specifically instructed by the White House to add the question. Ross stated that he was “not aware of any such” discussion between himself, or his team, and the White House about the question. However, it was revealed that Ross did discuss the question with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Ross’s personal motives are uncertain, but what is evident is that he is acting to please the president. The president campaigned on anti-immigrant sentiment and is responsible for the longest government shutdown in our nation’s history—which continues as of press time—in an effort to build a border wall. If the president gets his way in this matter, I fear what actions he may take against those who are in this country illegally that are brave enough to complete the census in its entirety.
The citizenship question should not be included in the 2020 census. There is no constitutional basis for it, and the census should not be used as a political pawn in the chess game that our federal government’s proceedings have become. The question would only further divide our country, rather than strengthen its weakening political foundation.
Peter Wilson is a second-year biomedical engineering student on the biocomputing and informatics track. He works in the Gustafson Lab and can be found on Twitter at @wpieltseorn.