Once per decade, the United States government conducts a census that helps allocate federal funds, grants, and other opportunities for states and communities. The census is supposed to include everyone who lives in the U.S. — whether they are documented or not — but President Trump wants to change that. Now, California is suing the Trump administration to make sure undocumented immigrants are counted.
Earlier this month, Trump called to ignore undocumented immigrants in the census. In a memorandum released July 21, Trump said that the 2020 Census should only include people with documentation papers. In his policy announcement, Trump only referred to undocumented people as "illegal aliens" — a term that has long been critiqued as dehumanizing — and claimed that "increasing congressional representation based on the presence of [undocumented immigrants] who are not in a lawful immigration status would also create perverse incentives encouraging violations of federal law."
Just a week after Trump's apparently unconstitutional order, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra — along with the cities of Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, and the Los Angeles Unified School District — announced a lawsuit in response. A suit coming out of California is to be expected as it is home to more than 2 million undocumented immigrants. In fact, almost a quarter of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. live in California, and they make up more than 6% of the state's population.
If Trump's order was to be followed, it could have huge ramifications for the state. The lawsuit claims that California would lose one House seat and an Electoral College vote if the 2020 Census ignores undocumented people. And while Trump's order argues that the Constitution doesn't say which people must be counted to determine apportionment, the lawsuit counters that the Constitution calls for counting "the whole number of persons in each state" — period.
"You can’t be a law-and-order president if you keep breaking the law," Becerra said in a statement. "This latest attack on the census is just that — it’s unlawful. President Trump still believes he can sidestep the U.S. Constitution. A complete, accurate census count is critical to ensure we get the Congressional representation and resources we have a right to."
The U.S. census is already expected to have undercounts. The census in fact routinely undercounts the American population; the Urban Institute reported that the past two censuses didn't count nearly 1.5 million people of color, who often are part of harder-to-count populations given they may experience language barriers or have less reliable internet access. The organization further predicted that the 2020 Census would fail to count up to 4 million people, with people of color and children being at the most risk. But with the coronavirus pandemic, Rob Santos, the vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute, previously told Mic that 4 million now seems like a "low estimate."
Experts predict that the coronavirus pandemic is going to significantly disrupt the 2020 count. Cindy Quezada, who is leading census work for The Center at the Sierra Health Foundation, told Mic, "There’s a total overlap. The people who have been hardest hit are the ones who are traditionally undercounted."
Even though Trump's order apparently violates the Constitution, this isn't the first time he's tried using the census to advance xenophobic policy. The administration originally wanted to just outright ask people to declare their citizenship status on their census form, which would have likely led to an undercount of undocumented immigrants, who may have been wary of answering the question and thus declined to fill out the form at all. But that attempt was blocked by federal courts last summer. In May, NPR reported that the administration found a workaround: using government records to figure out if people are citizens instead.
"President Trump's latest attack on a complete and accurate census count is not only unconstitutional — it fundamentally undermines our democracy," Oakland City Attorney Barbara J. Parker said. "This lawsuit is about making sure everyone in Oakland, in California, and across the United States, can stand up and be counted — no matter their background or their immigration status."