The controversy over the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which reached the Supreme Court this week, illustrates once again the catastrophic state of our politics in our hyperpartisan era. The status of millions of immigrants in the United States presents a serious problem, but neither party seems interested in giving them the permanent status that they deserve. Instead, they focus upon the partisan advantages to be gained or lost from the census. Meanwhile, the Republican Party seems to want to use the issue to return us, in yet another way, to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when a large portion of the American working class did not enjoy the right to vote.
No one knows how many illegal immigrants are living in the United States. 11 million remains the most commonly quoted estimate, a carefully developed 2018 estimate found that the true number is probably about twice that figure. These people now face increasing harassment from ICE, which is trying to speed up the deportation process. Meanwhile, they make up a significant portion of our labor force, especially in certain states and in certain industries. Our economy, in all probability, could not function without them.
A functional federal government, it seems to me, would recognize that most of these people now belong to American society and deserve the status of citizenship. Such a government would also want to know how many of them there really are. For these reasons, it seems to me, a question asking U.S. residents for their citizenship status on the census form makes perfect sense, and indeed, the census asked questions about citizenship 14 times since 1820, either about all enumerated adults, all enumerated people, or a sample of enumerated people. The argument before the Supreme Court suggested that a 5-4 majority is likely to approve the question, and I personally cannot regard such a decision as unreasonable.
Rather than provide an argument for giving legal status to illegal immigrants, however, the Trump Administration’s question seems designed to shift the political balance of power further in favor of the Republican Party in two different ways. First, evidence does show that in today’s climate, significant numbers of inhabitants may try to avoid census takers altogether rather than acknowledge their status. That will undercount inhabitants in certain states, particularly in urban areas, and thus potentially reduce their representation in Congress in the redistribution of seats that will follow the 2020 census. That, however, is not all. In Texas and elsewhere, Republican officials want to use answers to a citizenship question to base the drawing of congressional, state and city legislative districts on equal numbers of citizens, rather than people. That would shift representation away from poorer, largely nonwhite areas. And while the Constitution specifies that the number of representatives in each state must be based on the whole number of persons in that state, it does not mandate using the same standard for drawing the districts within a state.
Thus, under Republican rule at the local or national level, the citizenship question may allow ICE to expand deportation measures against millions of people, while also creating a large class of unrepresented inhabitants in our elections. This is not without precedent in American history.
The Union victory in the Civil War, led, first, to the abolition of slavery in the 13th amendment, then to the extension of citizenship (although not the right to vote) to all persons born in the United States, and lastly, to the end of restrictions on the right to vote based on race in the 15th amendment. White southerners accepted black suffrage only at the point of guns carried by federal troops, however, and after the withdrawal of those troops in 1877, various forms of intimidation, including murder, either kept black voters away from the polls or persuaded them to vote for ex-Confederate candidates. In subsequent decades state laws made it virtually impossible for black citizens—and many poor white ones as well-- to vote. These measures had spectacular results. In Mississippi, which had the largest proportion of black inhabitants, the total presidential vote fell from 165,000 in 1876 to 70,000 in 1896. In South Carolina the total vote fell from 233,000 to 69,000 in the same period. Not only nearly the entire black population, but also much of the white working class, lacked the vote in the southern United States from the late nineteenth century until the second half of the twentieth—a situation that allowed for the rule of an oligarchy in much of the United States.
A 5-4 Republican majority invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 2015, and since then, Republicans in various states have taken steps to make it harder—although hardly impossible—for poor and black people to vote. Those steps, however, threaten democracy less, in my opinion, than the continued presence of millions of lower-paid workers and their families who are not citizens and therefore cannot vote. Such people may already hold the balance of power in Texas, now our second-largest state, and in other states. The Trump Administration’s public focus on “border security” has diverted attention from their status, and if Democratic politicians favor granting them a quick path to citizenship, they are certainly being very quiet about it. I do not think that even the Trump Administration seriously imagines that they might deport most or all of those millions of people, or that the nation would tolerate the consequences of doing so. But I do think that the Republican Party wants to keep a large segment of the working class without rights, by refusing to make them citizens, and therefore to make it easier to keep political power in the hands of our economic elite. That in turn increases resentment between citizens and non-citizens among the lower half of the population, making it harder for them to unite to reverse the growing trend towards inequality. The question before the country is whether we truly want to undo all the gains of the last 120 years or so and return to an era of oligarchy and deeply flawed democracy.