Commentary: Trump playing politics with 2020 census question

A question about citizenship could intimidate immigrant families from responding to the survey.

  • By Ann McFeatters Tribune News Service (TNS)
  • Sunday, April 1, 2018 1:30am
  • Opinion

By Ann McFeatters

Tribune News Service

Are you a U.S. citizen?

If you are, answering that question is routine, a non-event.

If you are not and someone from the federal government asks you that question, your blood might freeze.

We’ve seen a large increase in forced deportations. People who have lived and worked in American since childhood have been uprooted from their lives and sent to countries where they may know nobody and don’t speak the language.

And that brings me to the 2020 census. Any adult living in the United States — not just citizens — is obligated by law to answer census questions or face a fine of up to $5,000. There can be a fine for a false answer, although this hasn’t happened in several years.

The 10-year census is enormously important, deciding how much money states get back from the federal government, how money is allocated for schools and hospitals, how many representatives each state has in the House and providing scientists with valuable demographic data on diseases, environment and technology.

The last time census takers asked about citizenship was 1950. Since then, that question has not been asked, although questions about immigration are asked on small samples of households done for demographic purposes.

Guess which president, espousing nationalism and anti-immigrant slogans and determined to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, seized on putting the citizen question back in the census. Yeah, that guy.

The citizenship question was espoused by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose Justice Department has been aggressive in expelling undocumented immigrants, and approved by Wilbur Ross, the billionaire who runs the Commerce Department and a backer of tariffs.

The reasoning is simple — and political. Immigrants tend to vote Democratic and many live in blue states. If blue states lose population, they will lose votes in Congress. (Republicans already control Congress, the White House and, thanks to Donald Trump, a large swath of the judiciary. Yet another reason why Democrats are desperate to win control of the House this November.)

Mandated by the Constitution, the stated goal of the 2020 census is to count everyone once, only once and in the right place. The Constitution says a count of “all persons.” Not “all citizens.” If immigrants, terrified of deportation and the breakup of their families, hide from the census, that would adversely impact every state and thousands of counties, cities and small towns.

A test of the 2020 census questionnaire has already begun in Rhode Island, without the citizenship question. Thus, the Trump administration wants to go nationwide with a census questionnaire that won’t have been vetted to ascertain the ramifications.

What if immigrants without papers spread the word and opt out of the census and schools and hospitals can’t handle the population? What if protests are organized to “answer” the questionnaire with the country of their origin, even if they are U.S. citizens? What if the entire validity of the census is called into question?

Not surprisingly, more than a dozen states have filed lawsuits seeking to block the question of citizenship from the census. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said that the decision to gather citizenship data is “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters.” Others aren’t buying it.

Why, when this country is so divided, dismissive of institutions, fearful of government and reliant on data, would a divisive, non-essential question be added to the important Census Bureau body count at this time with no vetting of its impact?

But what else would you expect from a man who began his presidential ambitions by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists and murderers.”

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Contact her at

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