Scott MacKay Commentary: U.S. Citizenship and the Census

Apr 6, 2018

Cards mailed to Providence County residents as part of a test run for the 2020 Census.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

Providence County is participating in a trial run of the 2020 U.S. Census. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay traces how something that shouldn’t provoke controversy has become partisan.

Every 10 years, Americans are counted by the Census. This has occurred since the 18th Century beginning of the Republic. It’s enshrined in the Constitution.

The reason for this population count is simple. It’s used to allocate U.S. Representatives to ensure that districts have equal representation.

Over the years, these population tallies have also been used as the basis for funding an array of government programs, from grants to local police departments to programs such as Medicaid, which provides health coverage to the poor.

What was once an arithmetic exercise has become fraught with politics. The reason: Because the Census bureaucrats have proposed asking a citizenship question on the forms for the upcoming count.

This might seem reasonable –why wouldn’t the government want to know where immigrants live?

Well, in the Age of Donald Trump, everything is partisan, from football players standing for the national anthem to citizenship. Last week, from the U.S. Capitol to the Rhode Island Statehouse, a gaggle of voices rose up to blast this plan.

Gov. Gina Raimondo and Lt. Gov. Dan McKee joined the mayors of Providence and Central Falls to oppose the plan to ask the citizenship question. They, Democrats all, are concerned that in the current atmosphere of anti-immigrant rhetoric and increased deportations, a citizenship question would spook non-citizens, leading them to avoid being counted.

Among the groups against the citizenship question: Common Cause of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, the Providence chapter of the NAACP and the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University.

Trump’s commerce  secretary, Wilbur Ross, says the citizenship query is needed to gather information necessary for enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was designed to ensure that black citizens in the southern states have access to the ballot box.

But in the current fractious political climate, the Democratic elected officials have a point. Immigration has become such a divisive issue that neither party trusts the other. There was once a left-right consensus for solving the illegal immigration issue with a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented people. That went out the window when Republican George W. Bush left the presidency and his party veered into the nationalist, anti-immigrant Trump right.

Another issue is that fewer citizens trust either big government or big data. The daily torrent of revelations about widespread digital identity theft and the scraping of Facebook accounts only further erodes trust.

We may not be in the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984, but many citizens suspect that Big Brother is watching. And the Census has not always been a benign population tally. At the beginning, the count required that slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person.

Census data was also used in one of the most shameful instances of government misuse of such  information –the internment of Japanese citizens on the West Coast during World War II. The census data was collected under strict confidentiality, but was used to identify neighborhoods where Japanese Americans lived so they could be detained during the war. Thankfully, America never had to answer the grim question of what would have happened to the Japanese in those camps had Japan been winning the war in 1944.

It’s obvious that undocumented immigrants would be wary of being counted by the government. When the president needs to play to his voter base of elderly white folks, he reliably invokes anti-immigrant rhetoric. Accusing immigrants of being everything from criminals to welfare cheats is a cheap applause line for this president.

The grand irony here is that the U.S. Border patrol reported recently that illegal border crossings are at a historic low.  Between 2000 and 2017, the number of Border apprehensions dropped by about 80 percent.

The last time all U.S. households were asked about citizenship was in 1950. If the census isn’t broken why would we want to fix it?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at