President Trump has given up on his bid to put a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, ending a naked effort to further concentrate political power among Republicans at the expense of immigrants and their communities. The question — despite the administration’s half-hearted and thoroughly unconvincing attempt to dress it up as a defense of the Voting Rights Act — was aimed at dampening immigrant and Latino participation to give Republicans another tool to further Gerrymander districts in their favor. And so with the 2020 attempt abandoned and the next Census not until 2030, the survey appears to have emerged largely unscathed by what should be its lone brush with Trump.
But, as the saying goes, when a would-be authoritarian closes a door, he opens a window — and that’s what Trump did Thursday. The president rolled out plans for an executive order demanding every federal agency hand over records outlining the number of citizens and non-citizens in the United States. Such a database would provide the administration a powerful new resource as it seeks to further tilt the scales of democracy in favor of the Republican Party, largely at the expense of immigrant communities. And it creates a bureaucratic Chekhov’s Gun, as, despite promises to the contrary, it leaves open the potential the information will be used to further the administration’s indiscriminate efforts to hurt undocumented immigrants.
As Trump himself put it, this new executive order, “will allow us to have an even more complete count of citizens than through asking the single question alone.”
“We are pursuing a new option to ensure a complete and timely count of the non-citizen population,” the president said from the Rose Garden. “I will be issuing an executive order to put this very plan into effect immediately. I am hereby ordering every department and agency in the federal government to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens in our country.”
“We have great knowledge in many of our agencies,” he added. “We will leave no stone unturned.”
Pres. Trump announced Thursday he is backing down from his effort to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, and will instead take executive action that instructs the Commerce Dept. to obtain an estimate of U.S. citizenship through other means. https://t.co/BZPougGBoS pic.twitter.com/QIDYZGWQDM
— ABC News (@ABC) July 12, 2019
The bigger problem remains: Trump is going to use his party’s control of government to make sure his party keeps controlling government. He’s not the first to do this, and Democrats raising alarms over this should keep in mind that gerrymandering is a bipartisan tradition. But the attempt bodes ill for what Trump and other Republicans have planned for the rest of his first term and a potential next one.
Trump’s Thursday announcement was something of a denouement after a chaotic week in which the administration couldn’t seem to agree with itself on what it planned to do with its now-failed bid to add a citizenship question to the census.
Last week the president blew up the legal battle by tweeting — despite the Supreme Court ruling that the administration’s rationale for adding the question was not sufficient and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ subsequent concession that the questionnaire would be printed without it — the effort to add the question would be “moving forward.”
Axios reported on Friday that some of the president’s closest allies, including his Supreme Court adviser Leonard Leo, were “stunned” with the decision to concede defeat in the Census battle. But Trump’s ongoing war on democracy is still in full effect, and though the he might not be able to restrict the congressional representation of undocumented residents by intimidating them into not participating in the Census, the new executive order will give his administration plenty of opportunities to further weight the system in favor of Republicans.
Instead of simply compiling a tally of how many American citizens live in the United States, the executive order lays out a multi-pronged plan for ascertaining a data on the number of “citizens, non-citizens, and illegal aliens in the country.” This will include the creation of an “interagency working group” that “maximize” the availability of records in order to establish citizenship status for “100 percent of the population.”
The data could be used to further gerrymander congressional districts. In fact, the EO all but makes clear that it will be used for this purpose. “The Department has said that if the officers or public bodies having initial responsibility for the legislative districting in each State indicate a need for tabulations of citizenship data, the Census Bureau will make a design change to make such information available,” the EO reads. “I understand that some State officials are interested in such data for redistricting purposes.”
Though the EO says that the generation of this data “has nothing to do with” enforcing immigration laws against particular individuals, it doesn’t say that it couldn’t ultimately be used for that purpose. The EO does, however, make clear that the data will be used to help better “understand” the effects of immigration and to help shape immigration policy. The slope from there to using it for immigration enforcement seems awfully slippery, especially given how willing the current administration appears to slide down it.
What is not mentioned in the EO, and what Trump did not mention during his press conference on Thursday, is the role the data could play in strengthening the Voting Rights Act, which was the administration’s long-stated reason for adding the citizenship question to the Census in the first place.
9. Trump's executive order says citizenship information is "important for multiple reasons," but read it & you'll find no mention of the Voting Rights Act — the administration's stated reason for wanting to add a #CitizenshipQuestion to the #2020Census👇https://t.co/OghEm3PbDn
— Hansi Lo Wang (@hansilowang) July 12, 2019
In ruling against the addition of a citizenship question to the Census, the Supreme Court wrote last month that the administration’s Voting Rights Act rationale was “contrived” and nothing more than a “distraction.”