It will be devastating for N.J. if the Supreme Court allows Trump to weaponize the Census
Washington, April 22, 2019
The requirement for the federal government to conduct a census every 10 years dates to 1790, but its integrity is in greater peril than ever before. In a nakedly political attack, the Trump administration has moved to add a last-minute question on citizenship status to the Census.
The implications of this move are momentous, as it risks the undercounting of minority-rich, immigrant-driven communities across America. For diverse states like New Jersey, the consequences of this would be devastating.
The Census seeks to capture who we are as a nation with the greatest metric there is: our people. Recognizing the potential for political manipulation inherent in tallying our national population, the Framers took the trouble of requiring our “actual Enumeration” in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, to be undertaken once every decade. Nebraskan or Los Angelino, Montanan or Patersonian – we must count everyone.
Straightforward and constitutionally mandated, Donald Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are nonetheless seeking to rig what has always been an apolitical accounting of our nation.
On March 22, 2018, in testimony before my colleagues and I on the House Ways and Means Committee, Secretary Ross asserted that the Department of Justice initiated altering the Census for the purposes of enforcing the Voting Rights Act. We now know that the Justice Department report Ross cited to us was written after he had moved to change the national count and that his false testimony notwithstanding, Ross was the driving force behind changing the Census.
My colleagues and I have written Ross repeatedly, asking him to explain his tainted 2018 testimony. He has responded with sidestepping non-answers. In the face of such blatant disregard for congressional oversight, the House Oversight Committee was forced to take the drastic step of subpoenaing documents related to the inclusion of the citizenship question.
The scrutiny has clearly rattled Ross as he recently refused to testify to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, as is regular and customary for cabinet secretaries seeking budget support, lest he face legitimate questions on his unlawful handling of the Census.
Federal law requires that any changes to Census questions must be submitted to Congress three years before the Census occurs; Ross’s move to change the Census was sprung a full year after that deadline. Even if the motivations of the administration here were rooted in nobility, they were still illegal and the highest officials in our government lied through their teeth about it.
And the Trump team’s motivations are not noble. A federal court put further sunlight on their obfuscation, holding that Ross’s actions were guided not toward obtaining the accurate or full tally the Constitution enshrined, but for the more cynical purpose of scaring immigrants into not responding to Census inquiries.
There is no question Ross and Trump officials knew well the implications of what they were doing, as an internal Census Bureau memo warned that adding a citizenship question would produce a significant undercount in minority and immigrant heavy communities. The memo also noted that adding this question would burden the bureau and by extension taxpayers with additional costs in the way of field work.
The addition of a citizenship question was not pursued despite these startling ramifications – it was sought because of them. Undercounting these communities has enormous implications including the loss of federal funding for minority communities for services and support and the elimination of primarily Democratic-leaning, majority-minority congressional districts in reapportionment.
In layman’s terms, severe undercounting would likely help shift congressional seats away from more urban segments of the country to overrepresented exurban and rural areas, further skewing an already-unbalanced House of Representatives. For states like New Jersey, which has perhaps the most diverse quilt of ethnic and immigrant communities in the nation, this impact could be devastating.
Long a fair accounting of our nation, the Census has been weaponized by the Trump administration to rob already underrepresented communities of their voice. If Ross disagrees with this characterization, he should come before Congress again to detail the process he undertook to add this question. While he’s with us, perhaps he could even discuss the myriad corruption allegations dogging him, including the bank stock he was required to divest from but didn’t or the allegations that he defrauded his former business partners of over $100 million.
So far, the administration’s efforts to politicize the Census have been stymied by a federal court, which held in January that Ross’s attempts violated longstanding law and precedent. The matter has been in limbo as the start of the new-decade count fast approaches. But in Washington, the Supreme Court will hold oral arguments in the case to settle this question for good.
Should the Census be politically altered in the way Trump and Ross scheme, fair electoral representation in America would be put at hazard. Places like my home Paterson, with its rich immigrant communities, would lose not just their representation, but their right to be treated with dignity. The Supreme Court must prevent this centuries-old tradition from being poisoned by the same cruelty and corruption that is consuming so many pillars of our republic under this regime.
The legitimacy of two constitutional mandates – the cherished Census and the impartial judiciary – depend on it.