The issue of immigration has been a major focus point of President Donald Trump's administration, but his efforts to shake things up haven't always gone smoothly. In 2018, the administration proposed adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, a move that was blocked by the Supreme Court in late June 2019. This led the president to threaten executive action in order to force the question's inclusion in the census. On Thursday, July 11, Trump finally backed away from the citizenship question, instead saying that he would direct the government to use existing federal records to find citizenship data. Trump may be framing this as a victory for himself, but as legal expert Laura E. Gómez — a professor of law, sociology, and Chicano Studies at UCLA — tells Elite Daily, the big reason Trump was pushing the citizen census question illustrates that the president and his fellow Republicans could have a longer strategy in mind.
During a July 11 press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Trump announced that he was issuing an executive order directing federal agencies to send any citizenship data they have to the Census Bureau. This was a significant shift from Trump's comments just a week prior, when he insisted via Twitter on July 3 that his administration was "absolutely moving forward" with the census citizenship question.
According to Vox, the following question would have appeared in the census had Trump been successful in his efforts: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" Trump's insistence on including this question in the census prompted widespread speculation that the president wanted to identify and threaten undocumented immigrants across the country. But Gómez tells Elite Daily that the administration may have a more long-term strategy in mind. Trump's proposed census question, Gómez says, could have been intended as a way to undermine an ongoing generational shift toward a more racially and ethnically diverse United States.
"There is kind of an inevitable demographic shift happening in the country because children who are U.S. citizens — who are more likely to be Asian American and Hispanic, because those groups have the highest birth rates — those people are going to become adults and voters and citizens," Gómez explains. "And so I see this whole citizenship question as just a ruse to really try to prevent or delay that inevitable demographic shift that’s happening."
Elite Daily reached out to the White House for a response to this argument but did not hear back by the time of publication.
If it were the case, attempting to sabotage this demographic shift could then improve Republicans' chances of maintaining power in parts of the country that are growing increasingly diverse and progressive — and evidence of this actually surfaced publicly in May 2019. According to The New York Times, a famous Republican strategist named Thomas Hofeller played a crucial role in the Trump administration's development of a census citizenship question.
When Hofeller died last summer, his daughter reportedly discovered hard drives in his home containing a 2015 study that Hofeller conducted. In the study, Hofeller reportedly concluded that a census citizenship question would enable Republicans to create even more gerrymandered congressional districts, according to The Times. In turn, Gómez says, this would decrease the power of minority and Democratic voters.
"There’s also a longer-view game that the Republicans are playing," Gómez claims. "What they want to do in the long term is they would like to change the Constitution to say apportionment of congressional districts would be made only on the basis of the number of citizens in a state, as opposed to the number of people ... reminiscent of the pre-Civil War enumeration policy in the Constitution."
"To me," Gómez says, "this whole issue is about the health and vibrancy of our democracy."
To understand exactly how this reported strategy would work, it's important to have a grasp on how census data is used. Every 10 years, the Census Bureau collects data, which is then used to determine how many representatives each state sends to Congress, and how many congressional districts each state will have. Census data also determines how congressional districts are drawn, and how much money should be allocated to each state for social services.
That means that census data directly impacts the elected representation that each state will have, including how many representatives it gets in Congress — and a citizenship question on the census could threaten the accuracy of that representation, Gómez explains. Why? Because non-citizens might be worried about responding to the census, and that could lead to an undercount of people in states like Texas and California, which have high numbers of immigrants.
"When people talk about the undercount in the census, it’s not just the undocumented immigrants who might be undercounted," Gómez claims. "It’s anybody who fears that they might be implicated in this — so, for example, if you’re an undocumented person but you’re living in a household with people who are citizens, then that whole household could be chilled from responding."
Permanent residents and immigrants on any type of temporary visa could also be concerned about responding to the census if a citizenship question were included, The Washington Post reported. Census Bureau officials found that including a citizenship question in the census would decrease response rates from households with one or more non-citizens by at least eight percentage points, per the Post.
“Number one, you need it for Congress — you need it for Congress for districting,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “You need it for appropriations — where are the funds going? How many people are there? Are they citizens? Are they not citizens? You need it for many reasons.”
That's why Trump's decision to backtrack from the citizenship question "is a story about Trump losing," Gómez argues.
"He lost because the Supreme Court ... wasn’t going to let him include the citizenship question, and it kind of makes visible now what the purpose was of what he’s doing," Gómez says. "These things were already happening beforehand. In fact, the Census Bureau itself opposed adding the citizenship question because they knew that it would lead to an undercount of the population."
According to Gómez, the Census Bureau actually encouraged the Justice Department to obtain citizenship data from other government agencies long before Trump's July 11 press conference. According to The Washington Post, the bureau has been recommending the perusal of existing federal data since January 2018, and has already been working on this project by seeking out Social Security and immigration records. Using administrative data on citizenship would yield more accurate results than adding a citizenship question to the census, the bureau's experts argued.
In declaring that he was going to direct government agencies to aggregate existing federal citizenship records, Trump is basically doing exactly what the Census Bureau has been urging him to do for over a year. But even if Trump has backed away from the census citizenship question for now, Gómez warns that we may not have seen the end of his attempts to influence congressional redistricting. The census question has been blocked by the Supreme Court, but that doesn't necessarily mean we can rest easy. At the state level, some conservative lawmakers have already called for changes to congressional reapportionment — the process by which House seats are distributed among the states.
In a June interview with Fox News, Florida Sen. Rick Scott not only advocated for the inclusion of a citizenship question in the 2020 census, but also suggested that only citizens should count in determining "how many additional congressmen and women that Florida gets." Also in June, the state of Alabama filed a lawsuit against both the Commerce Department and Census Bureau, arguing that only citizens should be counted when apportioning congressional seats and electoral college votes. Elite Daily has reached out to the White House for comment regarding the president's views on congressional apportionment.
Gómez predicts that a combination of House Democratic oversight and multiple lawsuits may prevent Trump and his fellow Republicans from changing the Constitution to count only citizens in the apportionment process. However, that means the stakes are especially high for the 2020 presidential and midterm elections, which will decide just how much weight Trump and the Republican Party might have. As a result, it will be crucial for voters to make their voices heard as these key elections approach.