In 2010, I worked as an enumerator for the US Census Bureau. My job: find people who had failed to return a census form, and count them. My beat: North of Howard in Rogers Park, one of the most immigrant-heavy neighborhoods in Chicago, if not the nation.
I will never forget the afternoon when I encountered natives of seven different countries in one apartment building on Sheridan: Mexico, Poland, Nigeria, Mongolia, South Korea, Colombia, and South Africa. It wasn’t my job to ask any of those people if they were citizens. But if the Trump Administration has its way, it will be next time.
The Justice Department wants to add a citizenship question to the US Census, saying it needs a “calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected.”
But voting rights activists suspect another motive: discouraging immigrants from responding to the census, thus reducing their numbers in the population count and limiting their representation in Congress. A citizenship question, predicts Ceridwen Cherry of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, would “dramatically reduce participation by immigrant communities, stunting their growing political influence and depriving them of economic benefits.”
The 14th Amendment prohibits the Census Bureau from limiting its count exclusively to citizens, dictating that “[r]epresentatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State.”
But Trump has taken issue with the 14th Amendment already this year, threatening to sign an executive order ending its guarantee of birthright citizenship. And if a citizenship question intimidates immigrants, that would work to Trump’s advantage: eight of the 10 states with the largest percentage of foreign-born residents voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
One of those states is Illinois, which had a foreign-born population of 13.7 percent in the last census. Due to our high number of immigrants and the fact that we’re losing population, no state has more to lose from a citizenship question than Illinois.
Our population loss means we’re guaranteed to forfeit a congressional seat after the next census. But if our non-citizen population is undercounted, we could lose two, according to projections by the Brookings Institution and the Election Data Services company.
That would reduce our presence in the House of Representatives to 16, and our electoral votes to 18 — the lowest figures since the 1860s.
The Democrats who dominate Springfield would probably find a way to cut those seats in Central and Southern Illinois, making the the citizenship question a self-own on the part of Republicans.
But stripping this blue state of two electoral votes would disadvantage Democratic presidential candidates down the line. Plus, census figures are used to determine federal funding, so a citizenship question could cost the state money.
As a result, Illinois is one of 17 states suing the federal government to prevent it from adding the question. The suit went to trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan earlier this month. One piece of evidence presented was a survey conducted by the Census Bureau which found that Latinos “expressed intense fear that information will be shared with other government agencies to help them find undocumented immigrants” and “worried that their participation in the Census would harm them personally.”
There is some evidence this is already a factor. In 2010, a report estimated that young Latinos were undercounted by 7.1 percent, compared to 4.3 percent for young non-Latinos.
During that year’s census, Ald. Ricardo Munoz told me he believed his ward, the 22nd, which is heavily populated by Mexican immigrants, was the city’s most populous.
His evidence? It generated the most garbage — a more accurate measure of population than the Census, which many of his constituents were reluctant to participate in. Every Chicago ward was supposed to contain 55,000 people, but he estimated his contained at least 60,000 as a result of Latinos being undercounted.
As someone whose job was persuading people to participate in the Census, I can say with absolute certainty that a citizenship question would have made it harder. The people I spoke with were already reluctant to answer personal questions from the government. Inquiring about their citizenship — especially on behalf of a president who ran on a nativist platform — might have resulted in some doors shut in my face.
That may be just what the Trump Administration wants.