The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Excluding undocumented immigrants from the census is doomed to fail, but Trump is all in

An envelope containing a 2020 census letter.
An envelope containing a 2020 census letter. (Paul Sancya/AP)
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PRESIDENT TRUMP’S order last Tuesday excluding undocumented immigrants from the numbers on which the nation’s House districts are based had all the bells, whistles and cosmetic touches of a finely honed legal document. Don’t be fooled, because here’s what the Constitution says, in plain English: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.”

The president may not like unauthorized immigrants, but chances are remote, at best, that he can prove they are somehow distinct from a state’s “whole number of persons.” In fact, Mr. Trump’s exquisitely tortured legal logic, and its comportment with the Constitution, is not really the point of his order. He is more interested in partisan political posturing on immigration and, especially in this case, frightening migrants without papers so badly that they will hesitate to respond to the Census Bureau’s attempts to count them.

That’s a real danger — and not only to a Democratic (and therefore targeted) state such as California, which the president referenced in releasing his order last week. If the census undercounts unauthorized immigrants, as the president clearly intends, it could also mean a swing state such as Florida, and a Republican state like Texas, would be at risk of losing representation in Congress and significant sums of federal funding. Some 775,000 undocumented immigrants are estimated to live in Florida; some 1.6 million are thought to live in Texas.

The nation’s inexorable demographic change — a majority of Americans will be people of color by 2045, according to the Census Bureau — is an existential threat to the Republican Party. It also appears to keep Mr. Trump awake at night, conjuring ways to hold back the tide. Early in his term, his administration laid plans to single out illegal immigrants, and scare them off, by having the census ask whether respondents were citizens. The Supreme Court blocked that foray last summer, having found the administration’s rationale “contrived.” But the president remains undeterred.

The challenges he faces in excluding illegal immigrants when allocating districts in the House of Representatives go beyond those that would likely stymie him in court. The fact is, there is no official count of undocumented immigrants, and the most widely accepted estimate of the current number — more than 10 million, according to the Pew Research Center — is an extrapolation from government figures; and it has been attacked as an undercount by some conservative groups. Federal law prohibits the government from using population estimates in the process of reapportionment.

Like many of the president’s actions and statements on immigration, this latest order is meant largely for the consumption of nativists in his GOP base, for whom the growing numbers of Hispanic and other immigrants, and their U.S.-born children, are an electoral nightmare. Rather than reckon with America’s diversity, they use every means at their disposal — suppressing the vote, ending asylum, impeding legal immigration — to turn back the clock. It’s a project doomed to fail, but Mr. Trump is all in.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Trump tries one more time to rig the census

The Post’s View: The Supreme Court can’t ignore damning new evidence on Trump’s census manipulation

Dana Milbank: Trump’s census scheme exposed: A lie to increase white power

Leah Litman: Trump lied to the Supreme Court. His new census order proves it.

The Post’s View: The census is coming. The government is not ready.