The main goal of the census in the United States is to count people, Plain and simple. Regardless of race, ethnicity, age, location, or any of countless other categorizations that people like to talk about, the census must do one thing: count. Now, however, that main function of the census is under threat.
Let’s start at the beginning. As aforementioned, the goal of the census is to provide an accurate count of populations within American borders. In the U.S., it occurs every ten years and the data gathered from the census is used in a plethora of different ways. Aside from serving as just general statistics on the size and overall status of different groups in the nation, it is also used to apportion members of the House of Representatives, draw state political districts, and help allocated billions of federal funding. A citizenship question in the census would hinder and limit the effectiveness of the data from the study.
The proposed citizenship question is relatively simple, and isn’t necessarily unheard of. Is this person a citizen of the United States? The simplicity of the question masks its true effects, however. This question would affect one specific group of people heavily: Hispanics. Speaking from experience, there is a perpetual fear within the Hispanic and Latino community of immigration services. Even though I was very privileged to never have been labeled as ‘illegal’, there were still nigh countless tales of the scary ICE agent coming and messing up your whole life. That fear is what is embodied in this question. A yes to the question can be a lie, what if they check it and find out you’re lying? A no to the question is admitting your ‘crime’ without even fighting for it. There is no way to answer this question and come out on top as a Hispanic or Latino immigrant that has been labeled as ‘illegal’, and even not being labeled as illegal. For example, I am in the U.S. because of my green card. What do I answer to the citizenship question? Am I or am I not a U.S. citizen?
I believe that this rephrasing of this question is stealth authoritarianism. The idea of stealth authoritarianism comes from Varol’s paper of the same name, published in 2014. In the paper, Varol describes stealth authoritarianism as a new, but growing, school of authoritarianism. It is not marked by “[open repression] of opponents by violence and harassment and [subversion of] the rule of law to perpetuate rule” (Varol, 1673). Instead, modern authoritarians use democratic institutions and mechanisms that exist in real democratic regimes to consolidate their power.
As aforementioned, for this act to be stealth authoritarianism it must be two things: taking advantage of an institution and mechanism of real democratic regimes and an attempt to consolidate power for the ruling authoritarian party. I will argue that it is both things. The legality of changing a question on the census is not really arguable. The Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau are certainly allowed to change and rephrase questions. Whether they followed the requisite rules and procedures to make these changes is a different question, but the fact that changing questions is a power they have cannot be argued.
Next, this act must serve to consolidate power for the ruling authoritarian party. I believe that it does. Throughout Trump’s presidency, there are countless examples of him vilifying latinos and hispanics, in particularly Mexicans, as rapists, murders, and much more. By rephrasing this census question, the population count of this minority would be heavily skewed. This would lead to less representation in the House of Representatives due to incorrect population numbers, as well as less federal aid arising from misallocation of funds. Coincidentally, the minority group most heavily affected by this change in the census is the minority that Trump has been most vocally negative about for the past four years. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Instead, it seems like a concerted effort to reduce the political voice and access to representation, as well as reduce voting turnout, of a minority in the United States under the guise of preserving voting rights.
The fallout from this decision could be massive and it is hard to overstate the effect this would have on the big picture. The data of the 2020 census will be the most up-to-date data for the next decade. If hispanics and latinos are severely underrepresented in the census, which they will be if this question remains in place, then for the next ten years government programs, allocation of House of Representative members, etc will not truly reflect the size of the hispanic/latino population in the United States. Furthermore, it will reduce the voice of this population and as such could lead to more and more negative policy decisions being made simply due to the lack of a dissenting voice.
Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review, vol. 100, no. 4, 24 Apr. 2014, pp. 1273–1742.