For California, there is no doubt the most important case the U.S. Supreme Court will decide this year is the legal challenge to the Trump administration’s plan for adding a citizenship question to next year’s federal Census.
Political reality is that Donald Trump’s plan, carried out by the Census Bureau answering to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, has become one front in the President’s long campaign to punish California for giving his 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton enough votes for a national popular vote victory over Trump.
He has acted against California wherever he could since then, attempting, among other things, to eliminate the state’s authority to regulate smog and threatening to cut emergency services after major fires and floods.
But the Census question he wants to add, not asked for 70 years – “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” – is his most insidious anti-California move.
The Census Bureau long ago abandoned the question for two reasons: One was that the Constitution requires no such query, but just an “enumeration” of the “whole number of free persons” every 10 years. The second was that even with primitive polling methods available in the late 1940s, the bureau determined that asking this question would drive hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people to do whatever they could to avoid being counted.
The writers of the Constitution weren’t concerned about how many undocumented immigrants were in the country, just how many people.
They mandated that the Census measure actual population of the entire country and each state and hamlet in it in order to apportion Congressional representation for the next decade. That’s the sole use the Constitution lists for Census information. But over more than two centuries, other laws have required using the same data to dole out federal money for everything from highways and sewers to medical care for indigents.
In California, federal money funds local government nutrition programs, public schools, highways, housing assistance and much more.
“We’re talking about a lot of money,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, a former congresswoman. “We’re talking about vital services.” The state Department of Finance concluded California will lose $1,950 for every person not counted.
This means the amount at stake here could total billions of dollars now used for vital services, if this one question scares even close to 1 million undocumented immigrants away from getting counted. A low count could also cost the state at least one seat in Congress, another outcome Trump would enjoy.
But Trump’s aides insist the question aims to get valuable information, nothing more.
That’s a subterfuge, said one court which ruled the query unconstitutional because it would prevent the required accurate enumeration of free people.
U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel of Maryland, a Barack Obama appointee, concluded the government added the question “to depress the count of immigrant communities of color, thereby decreasing this population’s impact on and benefit from apportioned political power,” and that Ross (and Trump) “engineered the…rationale to cloak (its) true purpose.” Another federal judge held that Ross “made misleading statements” about the reasons for the question.
Those strong statements can be overruled by the Supreme Court, which fast-tracked the case because of a June 30 deadline for getting Census forms to the Government Printing Office and will rule before its term ends in mid-June.
One argument the government makes is that a similar question has been asked of some people during the last 70 years, so why not everyone? During that time, the query went only to relatively small groups in an effort to get information about specific population segments. The question, in fact, has never been asked of all Census respondents.
That’s part of a Census tradition of getting only a few facts from every person surveyed, while using more detailed questionnaires on smaller, but representative, groups.
The upshot is that if this question survives at the Supreme Court, as appears likely with the court’s political makeup, it could be problematic for everyone in California. And while state Attorney General Xavier Becerra has fervently fought its inclusion, once the court rules, he can do nothing more.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org