President Trump may just have struck his most effective and longest-lasting blow of a seemingly constant conflict with California, the state that cost him a popular vote victory in 2016 and continues to resist his policies most.
As with many of Trump’s anti-California moves, like his abortive attempt to defund the ongoing construction of an earthquake early warning system, he allowed one of his cabinet members to announce the latest tactic: adding a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census questionnaire.
California politicians and immigrant rights groups instantly recognized the move for what it is, “an attempt to suppress the political influence of people of color,” in the words of the Los Angeles-based Latino Victory Project.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, instantly filed a lawsuit to strike the question from the Census, denouncing it as unconstitutional. Twelve other states quickly followed.
But the states will likely lose that legal battle. For the Constitution says nothing about what questions the Census Bureau can ask, nor even about whether the answers are confidential.
All it says, in Section 2 of Article 1, is that every 10 years the government must count “the whole number of free persons … excluding Indians not taxed.” The information, it says, is then to be used for setting the number of representatives for each state in the lower house of Congress.
But census information now goes far beyond that. It also determines for the next decade how much money each state gets for education, highways, homeland security, health care, welfare, natural disaster preparation, sewers and much more.
The more people live in your state, the more money it gets for services Congress has decided everyone in America should have. Citizenship doesn’t matter in those distributions.
That’s why, every 10 years for the last half-century, California has mounted a loud campaign to convince illegal immigrants to let themselves be counted. For neither federal funding nor apportionment of congressional seats is set by the number of citizens in any state, only by the number of people living there.
In short, the more fear the Trump administration can strike in California’s large undocumented immigrant populace, the less money the state will get for a host of vital functions.
That’s because illegal immigrants have never completely trusted Census Bureau promises that their information will be confidential and not passed along to immigration authorities. Many fear being counted might lead to deportation, so they avoid census takers.
They have even less cause for trust today, when Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross controls the Census Bureau and didn’t promise confidentiality when he announced the citizenship question for 2020. (A similar query was used in six censuses before 1960, but obvious undercounts became common, so the question was abandoned for the last five counts.)
But Ross claimed the federal Voting Rights Act requires the government to tally “citizens of voting age to protect minorities against discrimination.”
He can likely revive the citizenship question because, as the Census Bureau says on its website, “It is constitutional to include questions … beyond those concerning a simple count.”
The bureau then lists several major legal decisions, including a 1999 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the census is “the linchpin of the federal statistical system … collecting data on the characteristics of individuals, households and housing units.”
It’s hard to see how a citizenship question violates that decision, but Becerra says it does. He adds, probably accurately, that the question is an “attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 Census for political purposes,” including diminishing both the federal money coming to California and its representation in Congress.
This state already gets back far less in federal spending than it puts in the Treasury via taxes, and Republican politicians in some other states are crowing that the citizenship question could cost California as many as three congressional seats, plus three electoral votes.
This all adds up to a savvy move by Trump to strike lasting harm against his political nemesis California, harm that could far outlast his own time in office.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com.