Are You a Citizen?

It seems an obvious question: so obvious, in fact, that I hadn’t really noticed its absence in all the times I’ve had to complete a Census.  In fact, on researching the issue further, it wasn’t really absent: in 1970 through 2000, the question was on the long-form questionnaire.  But the last time all participants were required to identify whether they were citizens in the United States Census was in 1950.

President Trump is planning to bring the question back for 2020, to howls of protest.  Nineteen state Attorneys General are contemplating suing the Federal government if the question is added.  The question, we’re told, would discourage immigrants, legal and illegal, from participating in the Census, leading to an undercount that would deprive states with large immigrant populations of representation in Congress (and, by extension, the Electoral College) and Federal aid of various stripes.

The Census is intended to be “an Enumeration” to establish “the whole Number of free Persons,” which includes (since slavery was abolished over 150 years ago, we’re all ‘free’) citizens and immigrants, regardless of their status.  Fair enough.

But not asking about citizenship is just one of many ways in which our leadership has made policy decisions in deference to people’s fears.  Some might be afraid to answer the Census if we ask about citizenship, so we won’t ask.  Indeed, the primary argument of the latest group of gun control advocates seems to be to emotion: guns are scary, and dangerous to our precious children.

Deferring to fear is not good public policy.  For years, we’ve been reluctant to address North Korea.  We’d make a deal with them; they’d do what they wanted anyway; we’d call them nasty names, but then ultimately make another deal.  President Trump has broken the cycle.  It’s a bit scary, to be sure, but it seems to be working.

Asking Census participants whether they are citizens is eminently reasonable.  The question should be asked.

Or is it that illegal immigrants—although they cannot vote—have become a part of the political power base of states like New York and California, and the leadership of those states doesn’t want to lose power?