Last month, President Trump ordered the Commerce Department to do what it legally could to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count used to redraw congressional districts. Then on Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the constitutionally mandated 2020 census would end a month early.
The obvious intention of both moves, and earlier efforts by the Trump administration to affect the census, is to undercount minorities who lean Democratic and to skew the tallies to improperly redirect federal money and congressional representation to Republican-friendly states.
The president doesn’t have the power to overwrite the 14th Amendment, which calls for counting everyone, regardless of their immigration status. There are narrow exceptions to this. Among them, foreign tourists and businesspeople, who aren’t considered long-term inhabitants and are thus not counted.
But that doesn’t apply to immigrants, whether undocumented or otherwise, who have put down roots, who own businesses, have become members of their communities and raised families — the essential workers, who have kept the economy humming even as the coronavirus continues to spread and are dying at disproportionately high levels.
And how is the president going to certify who is and isn’t undocumented? Does Mr. Trump intend to just guesstimate a percentage of people who should not be counted? That’s illegal thanks to a 1999 Supreme Court ruling forbidding the use of statistical sampling for purposes of apportioning Congressional seats.
Mr. Trump is warping a constitutional directive for partisan gain, but what else is new? He is trailing in national polls and is trying to energize his base ahead of the 2020 election. Talking tough about undocumented immigrants and dressing up a toothless memo as a presidential directive certainly looks impressive if his supporters don’t look too closely. But it’s an empty gesture that is impossible to enforce.
Even if this latest stunt is tied up in court and eventually defeated, it can still cause real harm to states with large immigrant communities. The fear brought about by the Trump administration’s latest action could result in immigrant-friendly states losing out on federal funds and congressional representation, which is ultimately the goal of this administration.
If immigrants, undocumented or not, or anyone married to an undocumented immigrant, fail to fill out a census form out of fear, they will not be counted and that could mean that children and adults who are U.S. citizens in that household would likely also not be accounted for. And like votes, every person counts.
Ending all efforts to count the country’s population a month sooner than previously announced is one more way to exclude minorities, who are more likely to be counted by in-person census workers. Not to mention the lasting consequences of having fewer seats in Congress when it comes time to apportioning representatives, which means less power.
There’s also the question of federal funds. In 2017, according to the Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University, 316 federal agencies distributed $1.5 trillion to local and state governments as well as nonprofit organizations, small businesses and households based on 2010 census data. If just one person is deterred from filling out the census, that’s money that doesn’t go to community schools, hospitals, children’s health programs and the like.
We should not underestimate the damaging effects of Mr. Trump’s posturing. The so-called public charge rule, pushed by Stephen Miller, made it more difficult for legal immigrants who accept food stamps, public housing and other government benefits they are entitled to for a lengthy period to be eligible for permanent residency.
According to the Urban Institute, immigrants legally entitled to public benefits their taxes paid for did not take part in these programs out of fear, even though, like most benefit recipients, they just needed a little help to get them through a rough patch.
But there is a solution: Just … don’t fall for it. Mr. Trump’s supporters should realize that this will be just another empty promise to be tossed in the pile with others like the one about Mexico paying for the wall, that achieving 6 percent economic growth would be easy, the 2017 tax cuts would pay for themselves, or that the coronavirus would disappear by the summer.
As for immigrants, don’t be afraid! Fill out that census form, and do it soon. Don’t let the president stop you from being counted and contributing to your communities. He doesn’t want Latinos and immigrants to skip the census because they don’t count, but because they do.
Janet Murguía (@JMurguia_Unidos) is the president and chief executive of UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), the country’s largest Latino civil rights organization.
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