COUNTERPOINT: Asking for citizenship status on the census not unconstitutional

Shauli Bar-On | Daily Trojan

In his farewell address, former President Barack Obama said, “It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.”

But the truth is, not everybody shares this “same proud title.” Exactly how many of us do? This is the question President Donald Trump and his administration want to answer in the 2020 Census.

The Trump administration decided last week to add a question regarding residents’ citizenship status in the 2020 Census. Since that decision was made public, many have responded disproportionately. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was the first to announce that California would be suing the Trump administration for its decision. Some 11 states have since joined the suit. While there is understandable frustration among these states, they must recognize that the addition of this question is not unconstitutional simply because they disagree with it.

First and foremost, the census asked Americans the citizenship question until 1950. A question regarding citizenship was included while the very Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution were alive. As such, there is no question of “Founders’ intent.” If the document’s authors had a constitutional issue with asking about citizenship status on the census, they would have objected to it.

Secondly, we must look to the purpose of the census itself. The census is a constitutional requirement, as delineated by Article I of the Constitution.

There are no guidelines outlined in the Constitution for what specific questions must or should be asked on the census. The Constitution is clear that the census’ purpose is for the apportionment of representatives per state. States also use the census to draw up their Congressional districts, ensuring each district is roughly the same size and that each representative is responsible for representing an equal number of people and citizens.

Art by Joscelyn Stocks | Daily Trojan

There is no debate as to the census’ purpose, which is to determine  how many people each Congressional representative should represent. The fundamental privilege that distinguishes  citizens from most noncitizens is the right to vote. Green card holders can also vote in local and state elections. Citizens have the opportunity to elect their representatives, and noncitizens do not. Therefore, only citizens should be considered for the apportionment of Congressional representatives.

This opinion, however, is not universal. The Supreme Court has weighed in regarding gerrymandering, but it has never truly considered the question of whether noncitizens should be counted in the census. In fact, in the most recent apportionments case Evenwel v. Abbot in 2015, the Court specifically chose not to rule on this issue.

This is not to say that noncitizens have no value in the census and understanding the modern U.S. Noncitizens will still be counted in the 2020 Census; they will simply be distinguished from noncitizens for apportionment purposes.

The claim that asking citizenship status will deter undocumented immigrants from responding to the census is unfounded. The census does not ask for a social security number or even proof of citizenship. It is sent to every address and quickly counted for statistical purposes.

It is unsurprising, then, that California — the state with the largest population as well as the most noncitizens (13 percent of Californians are noncitizens) — is the state heading the lawsuit opposing this change in the census. Regardless of whether these citizens are documented, the 2020 Census distinguishing between citizens and noncitizens would affect apportionment.

That said, the suit being brought before federal court is a positive undertaking. It will force a ruling regarding who should be enumerated for apportionment purposes. With varying opinions across the country, Americans deserve a consensus on the census. 

Shauli Bar-On is a freshman majoring in political science. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.