Op-Ed

Citizenship question on the census a cynical attempt to muzzle immigrants’ voices | Opinion

Demonstrators gathered outside the Supreme Court in April to protest the Trump administration’s proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
Demonstrators gathered outside the Supreme Court in April to protest the Trump administration’s proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Getty Images

Like many young black women, I struggle every day to make my voice heard. Despite stereotypes of the “strong black woman,” we often are viewed as not sophisticated enough, confident enough. articulate enough — or have not amassed enough money, influence or power — to participate fully in American democracy.

We regularly are told to vote, but for me and millions of others like me, voting is not an option. Although I grew up in South Florida, pay taxes and have been a legal resident of the United States for 17 years, I’m not a citizen. My mother spent many hard years maneuvering through the immigration system, and since I came of age I have continued the effort myself. But citizenship is not easy to obtain.

This means that the census is the one of the only ways my voice counts.

The sad fact is that people of color already are discounted in several ways; gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics, such as strict voter ID laws and a lack of polling places in communities of color, make sure of that. And millions of Americans are still denied the right to vote because of mass criminalization and incarceration. Now, to further weaken the power and voices of people of color, the Trump administration added a citizenship question to the census.

With the administration’s anti-immigrant track record, the citizenship question will almost certainly drive down participation among non-citizens and their family members, resulting in huge undercounts and a loss of crucial resources and representation for vulnerable communities.

We now know that was exactly the point.

This month, through litigation challenging North Carolina’s blatant partisan gerrymander, Common Cause obtained critical documents revealing that Republican redistricting guru Thomas Hofeller encouraged party and Census Bureau officials to add the citizenship question because it would significantly harm the political power of Latino communities and be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”

Hofeller’s plan was to use a citizenship question to gather data on where non-citizens live, and then manipulate districts to consolidate power for “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” by excluding non-citizens and those under the age of 18 from electoral districts.

But somewhere I read that the census must provide an “actual enumeration” of the nation’s population, regardless of citizenship, and that the total count is used to determine representation in Congress. That somewhere is the U.S. Constitution.

Now the accuracy of that “actual enumeration” is in jeopardy because of the citizenship question. Coming from this administration, which has repeatedly stoked American fears to justify actions that divide our country based on race, national origin and religion, the move smacks of an attempt to drive down immigrant participation in the process.

Moreover, the state’s U.S. Sen. Rick Scott recently said that, “How many additional congressmen and women that Florida gets, it ought to be based on citizenship.” Although that is blatantly unconstitutional, other states have already introduced legislation to divide state districts that exclude non-citizens.

As a practical matter, the census is used to divide all 435 seats in Congress and more than $800 billion in federal funding among the states. It helps determine the location of hospitals, firehouses, schools, highways and the size of your children’s classrooms.

The effects of an undercount will be felt almost everywhere, but especially in states such as Florida, where large numbers of immigrants have settled. Because of that, Florida’s congressional delegation — including immigrants and the children of immigrants from both parties — should be working extra hard to remove the citizenship question.

The administration’s effort is so egregious that three separate federal courts have ruled that the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Census violated the law. Now, it is up to the Supreme Court to act swiftly and decisively to end this blatant abuse of power for partisan political gain. We expect a decision by the end of the month.

By adding a question that is certain to undermine the accurate census count, this administration is discriminating against me and other people of color, while ignoring its duty under the Constitution to count everyone who lives in the United States. It is the obligation of the coequal branches of government — the Congress and the courts — to check this abuse of power by the executive branch.

Keshia Morris is Common Cause’s census and mass incarceration project manager. Morris grew up in South Florida, where much of her family still lives.

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