Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, was head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department from 2014 to 2017.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross failed a crucial test of leadership this week. Buckling to President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and their anti-immigrant agenda, Ross agreed to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, sacrificing the integrity, fairness and accuracy of the count. For the good of our democracy, Congress must overturn his decision.
Ross testified just last week that he was still considering the Justice Department’s last-minute, “very controversial request” (as he put it) to jam an untested, unnecessary question about citizenship status onto the 2020 questionnaire. That request drew intense opposition from a nonpartisan and ideologically broad group of business leaders, state and local officials, social scientists, and civil and human rights advocates who know how much is at stake with a fair and accurate census.
Not only is the constitutionally mandated census central to apportioning political power at every level of our representative form of government, but also the data collected influences the allocation of more than $675 billion in federal funds every year, along with countless policy and investment decisions by government agencies, nonprofit organizations and private enterprise.
The Supreme Court in 2016 ruled unanimously that “representatives serve all residents, not just those eligible or registered to vote,” and the Constitution makes clear that the census has a clear purpose: to count all U.S. residents, regardless of background, as the basis for the apportionment of political power. The Census Bureau spent most of this decade responding to this mandate, leading painstaking research, technology development and question testing. With their belated interference, Trump and Sessions are upending this meticulous preparation.
The harm from this decision, if it’s not reversed, will be expensive and long- lasting. This cavalier action will drive down response rates and drive up costs, as the Census Bureau tries to incorporate this untested question with little time to spare, develop new communications and outreach strategies, plan for the expanded field operation and count the millions of people who will be more reluctant to participate because of the addition of this controversial question.
Even before this disastrous decision, local officials and community leaders were deeply concerned about the difficulty of achieving a robust response in some communities, given a political climate in which immigrants are demonized and families live in fear of loved ones being plucked off the streets and deported. Adding a question about citizenship status into the mix can only heighten suspicions, depress response rates and sabotage the accuracy of the 2020 count. This decision would affect everyone, with communities that are already at greater risk of being undercounted — including people of color, young children, and low-income rural and urban residents — suffering the most.
What is the benefit here? The false justification offered by Sessions and his Justice Department, and repeated in Ross’s decision memo, is that this question is critical for Voting Rights Act enforcement. That argument is a bitter lie, laced with cruel irony. Consider that this is the same Sessions who has called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” and has shown no compunction in flouting voting rights enshrined in law.
During the final years of the Obama administration, I was the Justice Department official responsible for overseeing voting rights enforcement. I know firsthand that data from the ongoing American Community Survey was sufficient for us to do our work. Rigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has never required the addition of a citizenship question on the census form sent to all households. In fact, the census has not collected citizenship data from every household since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The last time this question was asked of everyone, this country was in a pre-civil rights era when communities of color were systematically undercounted and underrepresented. The Trump-Sessions-Ross argument is a red herring.
But these arguments should sound familiar. The notorious Kris Kobach and other advocates for voter suppression laws have pushed this question before — spurring legitimate suspicion from public officials and other stakeholders who wonder why the Trump administration would seek to undermine an accurate 2020 Census. The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee validated those suspicions last week by baring their partisan, nativist intentions in a fundraising email forecasting this decision, telling recipients “the President wants to know if you’re on his side.”
There should be no “side” when it comes to the census; it is foundational to our representative form of government. Civil rights advocates are preparing litigation. California has already filed a lawsuit, and New York has announced plans to lead a multistate legal effort to oppose this move. Members of Congress are also weighing in, because they can undo this.
The census is a sacred trust. The goal of an accurate count has been, and should remain, a nonpartisan one. Our democracy depends on it.
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