In 2009, Rep. Michele Bachmann, a far-right member of Congress from Minnesota who a couple of years later would briefly be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination (seriously, that really happened), announced that she'd refuse to answer most of the questions on her Census form, because you never knew what that dastardly Obama administration might be up to with all that data collection. At the time, she was roundly mocked for her paranoia. The Census? Could you find a more non-partisan government agency? All they want to do is count everybody, just like the Framers mandated in the Constitution.
It took the Trump administration to realize that there are some partisan and ideological possibilities in overseeing the Census, which they are now trying to put into effect. In December, the Justice Department made a request to the Commerce Department (which oversees the Census) that the 2020 installment include a question asking people whether they're U.S. citizens or not. It was not a surprise coming from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for whom opposition to immigration of all sorts has been one of the driving forces of his entire career.
Nor was it a surprise this week when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the Census will indeed include a citizenship question, for the first time in 70 years. There are lots of reasons why this is a bad idea, but the best way to understand it is as part of a broad Republican effort to rig the political system in their favor.
The Constitution mandates that the government conduct an "actual enumeration" of the country, meaning everyone who's living here, without regard to their citizenship or even legal status. The data that is collected is then used to determine not only how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn but also how all kinds of funds and services are distributed. States with lots of immigrants are concerned that if you start asking about citizenship then fewer immigrants are going to fill out the form, which will leave certain communities undercounted. That's why the state of California filed suit to stop the change as soon as it was announced.
"If you're a citizen, what do you have to worry about?" some might ask. Or even if you aren't — after all, it isn't like the Census is going to be arresting undocumented immigrants on the spot. But the truth is that it's already difficult to get even legal immigrants in many communities to trust a Census-taker enough to fill out the form, even without that question. "I worked the Census in 2000," said Salon's Amanda Marcotte on Twitter. "Getting immigrants to talk was really hard as it was. I had to assure them up front that I was not interested in citizenship status. This is a deliberate attempt to terrify and erase people."
That's even more true in the current environment, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has, it is no exaggeration to say, been terrorizing immigrant communities around the country. The agency has a newly aggressive spirit under President Trump, who came into office promising to build a wall, cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and round up supposed criminal aliens. The result is that even legal immigrants are already reluctant to talk to someone from the government taking down their information; start asking about citizenship status, and they'll be even more afraid.
Which, let's be honest, is just fine with the Trump administration and most Republicans. If the result is that immigrant communities get undercounted, that's probably fine with them, too. And that would likely be the result: lower counts in cities and areas with lots of immigrants, shifting power and resources to more rural areas where Republicans dominate.
This is one of the marks of this presidency: Despite whatever worries conservatives might have had about Trump's ideological commitment, he has allowed them to indulge every fantasy they ever had about destroying norms and procedures in order to gain an advantage. "Why the hell not?" could be the motto of the Trump years, as Republicans encourage themselves to think outside the box, and run roughshod over any tradition, code, norm, or even law that might constrain them from amassing or holding power.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans have proposed impeaching some of the judges on the Supreme Court, not because they're guilty of some kind of misconduct but because they issued a ruling Republicans didn't like, on whether gerrymandered congressional districts violate the state constitution. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) has refused to hold special elections for open state legislative seats because Republicans keep losing them; when a judge ordered him to schedule the elections, Republicans in the state legislature moved to change the law so he wouldn't have to. And of course, Republicans continue to pass as many state laws restricting voting as they can, to keep the wrong kind of people from the polls.
It isn't like this was Donald Trump's idea, but once it was presented to him, he gave it a big thumbs-up. As Republicans have shown many times, they'll take any chance they can get to give their party a boost, no matter what they have to break in the process.