ARTICLE 1, SECTION 3 of the United States Constitution has the distinction of being the ugliest part of that great document. The original text concerns how “Representatives and taxes shall be apportioned among the several states… according to their respective numbers….”
That’s the language authorizing the Census. The founding fathers compromised on who would be counted, agreeing to start with all “free persons,” and to include indentured servants but exclude “Indians not taxed.” And then there was the last group called simply “other persons,” only three-fifths of whom would be counted. All of them were enslaved by the fully counted free persons.
Columbia County had many enslaved “other persons.” We know this from early Census records and because of advertisements for “runaway slaves” published in local newspapers. Slavery was outlawed in this state in 1817, though it lingered for 10 or more years. It took the slaughter of the Civil War to purge it from the Constitution.
There will be a nationwide Census next year and along with it comes a new, more subtle threat to the ideals our Constitution stands for. It has to do with one question that the Commerce Department–the department that runs the Census Bureau–insists on having on the 2020 Census form. The questions reads: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
What’s wrong with that? The Census Bureau is required to keep its data private for decades. And anyway, the federal government has the right to know who’s a citizen and who’s not.
That’s true, but the census is the wrong way to gather that information. The reason is because asking some people to fill out a form that requires them to state their citizenship status causes them to avoid filling out the whole census form. As a result, about 6.5 million people won’t get counted… or will, depending on how the Supreme Court votes in the coming weeks.
This matters on the local level because the census gives us all sorts of knowledge about where we stand in comparison to other communities in terms of workers and housing and education–the types of things businesses need to know before they would consider locating here.
There’s also federal aid, much of it based on population. We don’t get credit for people who aren’t counted. And we need to know about everybody who’s here. The Census Bureau estimate of the county’s 2018 population showed that Columbia County lost 5% in population since the 2010 census. Anybody who thinks that’s a good thing is hallucinating.
Over that same 2010-to-2018 period the U.S. population grew by 6%. Money for schools, infrastructure, public safety, etc. will go where the people live, whether or not they’re citizens. The power will go there too. State Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives district lines are determined using Census numbers, and if we don’t count every person, we’ll simply have that much less of a voice in determining who is nominated, who’s elected and what policies they support.
It’s hard to believe that most people living here who aren’t citizens–and some who have become citizens–would shy away from something as innocent as a census form. But detailed research, tested in court cases, has shown that these neighbors of ours are frightened.
Agents of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement police, take people off the streets of our communities, often without what most of us born here would call due process. These sweeps make innocent people fearful of learning English in public places. And the Trump administration has expanded the scope of its “denaturalization” program, which aims to revoke the citizenship of some naturalized citizens. That can be creepy too.
The citizenship question has been asked before but not since 1950 and only in limited ways that sample the population rather than requiring everyone to respond. The federal Justice Department as well as Homeland Security have said they don’t need the question. Three lower federal courts have agreed that it should not be used. But the Trump administration cynically claims the question will help enforce the federal Voting Rights Act. That’s the exact opposite of what the question would achieve if the Supreme Court approves it.
This is not a political game. It’s an attack on one of the foundations of the freedom so many of us enjoy. Tampering with the Census chips away at information we need to function as democracy. And we are a weaker nation if we fail to condemn the attempt.