The federal court ruling that bars questions about citizenship on the 2020 Census is, on the surface, a victory for Democrats. A group of 18 Democratic attorneys general initiated the suit to thwart the Trump administration’s plan to add such a question, and New York federal judge Jesse M. Furman ruled in their favor, though he did not find evidence that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was acting out of political motives to suppress the residency count in immigrant-heavy states. Furman’s ruling instead focused on administrative-process issues.
On a deeper level, the decision (and the suit itself) is an implicit concession by Democrats of something obvious but important: that the states and congressional districts they represent include large numbers of noncitizens, whether legal residents or not. Census data tell the story: the foreign-born population exceeds 20 percent in more than 50 Democratic congressional districts; the comparable figure for Republican districts is 11. In the district of celebrity congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 25 percent of residents are foreign-born non-citizens, according to the American Community Survey. Because congressional representation—and federal aid—is determined by population count, not the number of citizens, Democrats and their districts gain an advantage. But there’s a cynical bargain here. Democrats “represent” millions of constituents who have not voted for them—and, by definition, may not. This is not just a partisan matter; it’s a problem for a healthy democracy.
A less cynical Democratic Party—or a more idealistic Republican Party—should address this situation differently. I suggest the following compromise: include the citizenship question on the Census—don’t we want to know how many U.S. residents can participate in our democracy?—but promote naturalization, to urge as many legal immigrants to embrace U.S. citizenship as possible. That process, remember, involves a test, one that requires familiarity with the Constitution and with American history; in effect, undergoing this preparation invites newcomers to become part of the American story. This was the norm during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century immigration wave, when the Pledge of Allegiance was first published.
Part of the bipartisan immigration-reform bill of 2013, which passed the Senate but never came to a vote in the House, included ideas for encouraging citizenship and what was once called assimilation. It was also part of a thoughtful 2009 Brookings Institution panel (of which I was a member) the findings of which were endorsed by prominent Democrats, and which also championed border security, primarily through the E-Verify program designed to ensure that only legal residents get employment.
Judge Furman’s ruling will likely be appealed, and it may wind up at the Supreme Court. Like so many other matters that go to the courts, though, this is fundamentally a political issue. Looked at in that way, it’s disappointing that Democrats would defend a system in which so many of their constituents have representation, but not the franchise.
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