Critics wasted no time blasting the Commerce Department’s decision to reinstate a question on citizenship in the 2020 census. California’s ambitious and hyper-partisan attorney general, Xavier Becerra, even sued the Trump administration, calling the decision unconstitutional.
Thomas Jefferson would have disagreed with Becerra. It was he, in his capacity as president of the American Philosophical Society, who in 1800 was the first to ask that the important qualification of citizenship be included in the census.
“For the purpose also of more exactly distinguishing the increase of population by birth and immigration,” Jefferson sought a table be added to the census that would present “the respective numbers of native citizens, citizens of foreign birth, and of Aliens.” The census takers duly complied in 1820 by including a question on the naturalization of the foreign-born.
The question was included in censuses, continuously and without controversy, from 1890-1950, a period which encompassed the years of highest immigration and the highest percentage of foreign-born citizens in American history. It was asked on the long-form census until 2000 and continues to be asked today on the American Community Survey.
Critics such as Becerra claim that including the question in the census will lead to an undercount of immigrant populations. But there’s no record that the millions of Ellis Islanders who arrived in droves at the turn of the last century – from Ireland, Sicily, Greece, Syria, Armenia, the East European shtetl and other troubled places – had any difficulty being counted, and no trouble voting. And there’s no proof that inclusion of the question in the ACS today leads to an undercount.
The Commerce Department, which has authority to determine what questions will be included in the census, was acting in response to a December request by the Justice Department. Justice cited multiple federal court decisions holding that, in voter-dilution cases (involving, for example, gerrymandering and other methods that can effectively disenfranchise minority voters), citizen voting-age population is the proper metric for determining whether a racial group can constitute a majority. Veterans of the Justice Department confirm that this data is vital to efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Preventing voter dilution is the job of the Justice Department. Following passage of the 1965 VRA, some precincts in the South maliciously tried to change voting rules so as to dilute the electoral power of the newly enfranchised African-American population.
The act, of course, has also been misinterpreted by the courts to do the opposite of the racial blindness that was its motivating goal. As a result, the Justice Department has for decades basically demanded that minorities hold electoral office in numbers roughly proportional to the population in a district.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurrence in Holder v. Hall in 1994, did not leave any doubt as to how he felt on this issue: “We have involved the federal courts, and indeed the Nation, in the enterprise of systematically dividing the country into electoral districts along racial lines — an enterprise of segregating the races into political homelands that amounts, in truth, to nothing short of a system of ‘political apartheid.’ Blacks are drawn into ‘black districts’ and given ‘black representatives’; Hispanics are drawn into Hispanic districts and given ‘Hispanic representatives’; and so on.”
The question on citizenship is a symbolic reminder that distinctions between citizens and non-citizens are more important in a civic-minded constitutional republic such as ours than distinctions on such immutable traits as race and ethnicity. Restoring this question, however, won’t do much to fix the identity politics that Thomas rightly complained about, and which is fraying the national fabric.
To strike a blow against identity politics, the administration needs to go much further and discontinue asking questions on “pan-ethnicities” confected by the federal bureaucracy itself, such as “Hispanic,” “Asian” or “Pacific Islander.” To that end, it should rescind the Office of Management and Budget’s 1977 Policy Directive standardizing these groups, along with its 1997 revision.
Though not mentioned as a rationale by either Justice or Commerce, the question on citizenship should re-open the debate over whether electoral seats should be apportioned according to the population of citizens rather than the total population.
Those who argue for total population say non-citizens use services and are entitled to equal representation. Using total population, however, creates situations where voters in precincts with a large percentage of non-citizens have more electoral power than voters in precincts with higher percentage of citizens.
We can have a calm debate on all this – and leave the hyperventilation to others.
Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of “A Race for the Future: How Conservatives Can Break the Liberal Monopoly on Hispanic Americans.”