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Will Trump-era Census clip Latino political clout with citizenship question?

“He’s doing his best to whitewash Latinos out of existence,” said MALDEF president and general counsel Tom Saenz.
The official US Census form, pictured on March 18, 2010 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Before it decided to add a last-minute question on citizenship to the 2020 Census, the Trump administration jettisoned a decade-in-the-making question that aimed to make it easier for Hispanics to identify themselves.

For years, the Census' focus had been on how to count Latinos, many of whom were left confused by the 2010 Census questions on race and ethnicity. Many Latinos don't identify with either "white" or "black," so many Latinos chose "some other race" on the 2010 Census.

Though it had its own controversy, the Obama era attemptto allow Latinos to better define themselves by reshaping the existing racial and ethnic categories was shoved aside by the debate around the Trump administration plans to ask who is a citizen and who isn’t on the next Census.

For many, the switch has burnished the belief that this administration’s policy on Latinos is about curtailing their political influence rather than cultivating it.

“He’s doing his best to whitewash Latinos out of existence,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said of President Donald Trump. “This is someone bent on excluding Latinos.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees Census, explained his decision to add the citizenship question in a memo issued last week, just days before the statutory March 31 deadline.

Ross said in an eight-page memo that he talked with several Census workers and reviewed outcomes from past practices in his "hard look" at adding the citizenship question.

By comparison, the Census Bureau spent a decade researching and testing – detailed in a 2015 report — a redesigned Latino identity question that it ultimately proposed to the Office of Management and Budget be inserted in the 2020 Census in place of the 2010 question.

In January, in a one-page statement, the Census Bureau said it was sticking with the 2010 race question on Hispanics. There was no explanation on how that decision was reached.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), has served on the National Advisory Committee or Racial and Ethnic and Other Populations through which he helped develop the 2020 Census question on Hispanic race and ethnicity. That question had a nearly 100 percent response rate in testing, Vargas said.

"Ten years worth of research and millions of dollars were spent on trying to understand just how to ask race and ethnicity differences. It took that long for the bureau to come up with a recommendation that the Trump administration shelved," Vargas said. "Now we are moving forward with a question that is completely untested. We have no idea what impact it will have on the quality of data and no idea on how (Census) will respond to people who leave it blank."

Cristobal Alex, president of Latino Victory Project, said the introduction of the citizenship question is an attempt to "slow down the political shift" in this country.

"At a time when you have this surge in democratic growth in our community, coupled with the surge in electoral power and being on the cusp of a major blue wave, what we are seeing from this administration is really an attempt to suppress the political influence of Latinos and communities of color and the latest effort to intimidate undocumented immigrants and families," Alex said.

Accurate counts of Latinos are important because the Constitution requires that the Census results be used to divvy up the 435 members of the House based on population. Non-citizens cannot vote in elections, but courts have ruled that they are constitutionally guaranteed representation in Congress regardless of their lack of citizenship.

Where that population is clustered is also important for ensuring Latinos get the chance to elect the candidates they want to represent them. Under the Voting Rights Act, the courts and lawmakers have created majority-minority districts. They require states to draw political districts that ensure the votes of racial and ethnic minority populations are not diluted. Fewer such districts could exist if Latinos are undercounted.

“Reapportionment really is about following the Latino population,” Saenz said. “States that are gaining seats are the states with growing Latino populations.”

Non-citizens in the population could include legal residents, students, those in the U.S. on visas, as well as people here without legal permission. Citizenship questions asked in the Census "long form" or the American Community Survey, given to a limited number of Americans, do not ask about legal status.

Mike Gonzalez, a former member of the George W. Bush administration and a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said people are overreacting to the addition of the citizenship question and oppose it largely because it's coming from Trump.

Gonzalez argues that drawing a district that includes a non-citizen population dilutes the vote of a district that has a larger U.S. citizen population.

This is an argument made in the Evenwel v. Abbott case from Texas regarding state Senate districts that went to the Supreme Court. The court affirmed that total population, rather than total citizen population, could be used in redistricting.

However, the justices left open the possibility for states to use voter population totals to draw state legislative districts if they chose. There is some concern that this is why the administration wants to collect citizenship data in 2020, so states can draw legislative districts on basis of citizen or voting age population totals.

The citizenship question should "re-open the debate over whether the electoral seats should be apportioned according to the population of citizens rather than the total population," Gonzalez wrote in a column for the Heritage Foundation website.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., agree. Although both come from states with high non-citizen populations, an estimated 3.1 million in Texas and 2.2 million in Florida, they signaled support for the citizenship question in tweets.

Linda Chavez, chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity who worked in the Reagan administration, said in an online column that there's an argument to be made against using total population to draw districts. But, she added, "the way we apportion voting districts deserves serious and open discussion, not subterfuge on the part of a White House not known for candor."

After the Trump administration shelved the redesigned question on Hispanic race and ethnicity, former Clinton administration Census Bureau director Ken Prewitt told NPR in January that “a country with demographics as fluid as the U.S. has to adjust its statistics.”

Prewitt, author of “What Is ‘Your’ Race?: The Census and Our Flawed Efforts to Classify Americans” has argued that Census’ use of the five races of white, black, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander are archaic. Statistical ignorance is a moral failure, Prewitt wrote.

In a recent interview with NBC News, Prewitt slammed the recent addition of the citizenship question.

"If the Census cannot even use this (redesigned) question which went through seven or eight years of study and review ... then on what grounds can they put a citizenship question in that skipped all of that?" he said.

Prewitt predicts that in 2020, the U.S. will end up with a Census that is "less revealing, without the contours and the dynamics (on race) we could have had, and that's a step backward, not a step forward."

In the meantime, NALEO's Arturo Vargas said his group plans measures to get Congress to reject the citizenship question.

“This is our Constitution as well as anybody else’s," Vargas said. "And the Constitution requires the enumeration of all persons.”