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Immigration activist Attorney Andrea Senteno analyzes the significance of the Supreme Court’s hearing on including a citizenship question on the 2020 census

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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. Trump’s Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, announced that a citizenship question will be put on the 2020 census. As soon as that happened, immigration rights groups, liberal and left groups, took to the courts, saying this would completely jeopardize the count and create an undercount that would be detrimental not only to congressional districts, which some people worry about, but would also endanger the validity of the census, which would in turn undermine our very democracy, many would argue. The administration has argued that it’s necessary in order to uphold the Voting Rights Act, which is interesting since it’s something that hasn’t seemed to concern them in the past. It does now. It was heard before the Supreme Court recently and in that hearing, conservative Justices invoked foreign law, which in the past has been an anathema to most of them. So what does all this really mean? And what’s at stake here if Wilbur Ross and the Trump administration actually prevail in this case, in this battle, that some would argue would politicize the census by putting a citizenship question inside the census? We’re joined by Andrea Senteno who is the Regional Council for MALDEF, which is the Mexican American Legal and Education Defense Fund. Andrea, welcome. Good to have you with us.

ANDREA SENTENO Thank you very much for having me.

MARC STEINER So this case has really been interesting, watching how the lower courts have ruled against Barr— Barr, I got the wrong case here. [laughs] How many can they rule against? [laughs] —that have ruled against Wilbur and the Trump administration saying this lacks transparency, that it has violated previous law, that it undermines the census. So talk a bit about the arguments on both sides and what’s at stake here?

ANDREA SENTENO Sure. So lower courts below three different courts, have found that the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 census form has been in violation or is a violation of federal law. And in two different courts, it’s been found to be a violation of constitutional law, so of the US Constitution. And there is a lot at stake here. The census is incredibly important for the apportionment of congressional seats and for divvying up federal dollars that flow into our states and support much-needed services and programs. And so, it’s super important that every single person be counted on the census.

MARC STEINER It’s been an interesting history here when you look at what has happened in the past up to the 1950s, when they changed the law and did not ask citizenship questions any longer. It’s always been a battleground. Let me just read one piece here from the US Constitution. We can talk about what this means in the context of where we are in the 21st century. This is part of the huge battle that took place over this very question of a census when they were writing the US Constitution. And in Article I, Section 2, the Constitution says— and it’s up there, we’ll read it— “and enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of 10 years in such manner as they shall by law direct,” and that was in 1789. So really, I’m curious what the constitutional debates are around this and how you define what they are— given that it doesn’t say much in this particular article other than, we’re doing the census?

ANDREA SENTENO The US Constitution requires the federal government to conduct a head count of every single person who resides in the United States. We use those numbers to divvy up House of Representative seats among the states. What the administration has done is put on a question it knows will discourage communities of color and immigrants from participating in the census. In a state like California or Texas with high populations of immigrants and people of color, they’re going to experience a drop in their count that won’t be accurate. And so we know that there’s a reason for putting this question on— to target not only those states, but more specifically those populations who are growing across the United States.

MARC STEINER So let me ask this other question in terms of that. In the 1890 census— it’s interesting how they approach this question— they specified males of foreign birth who were 21 years or older, were asked the question whether they were naturalized, whether they had taken out their papers, or they intend to become naturalized. In 1950, they asked people whether they were foreign-born and were they naturalized. So these questions— similar things have been asked in the past, but nothing directly as a citizenship question. I can hear people asking the question, “so what’s wrong with this question? Why shouldn’t we know who is a citizen or not in our country?” How do you respond to that when people ask that question— not in terms of just the pure questions that the Supreme Court might ask, but how America perceives this?

ANDREA SENTENO I think there are two things. One is that the question itself hasn’t been asked of the entire population in many, many decades. And so, this question hasn’t been one that’s common to most people across the United States. It has been asked on the American Community Survey, but that’s a sample population of the US. That’s not every household and it happens on a rolling basis every year to provide the Census Bureau needed data for some data sets that we use for different parts of the government. It’s not a question that is common for our government to ask of every single household. The second part of that is why is the Census Bureau, why is the Department of Commerce moving forward to put this question on? And the reason that the secretary gave for putting it on was for voting rights enforcement, but the record in all of the litigation brought against this question shows pretty clearly that that wasn’t the reason for putting this question on. And so, there is something to be said about the fact that our government has a public position of why it put something on or why it’s deciding to do something, but we know that that is not the real reason, that it’s a lie. And so, asking the question now really does beg the question, why? What is it that they’re trying to accomplish? And here we know that putting it on in this climate will make a lot of people fearful for answering the census and means they won’t turn in their forms potentially. That could have a really negative impact on states and on localities with high populations of immigrants and high populations of communities of color.

MARC STEINER So when the lower courts, the three lower courts ruled against the government, against Secretary Wilbur Ross and the Trump administration, they almost basically were saying that the use of the Justice Department issues are a ruse, so talk a bit about those cases. And supposing— because you now have a majority of conservative Justices serving on the Supreme Court, this could go against in the sense of allowing the citizenship question to remain. What would be the next steps? What would happen?

ANDREA SENTENO So you’re right. The record here has really shown, and the lower courts have picked up on that. They’ve correctly noted that many of the e-mails, of the memos that went around between Department of Commerce officials and others within the White House and the administration, show that the pretext that they gave from the Department of Justice requesting this data to better enforce voting rights, was really just a false story to put the question on the census. And so, we’re hopeful that that record that is pretty robust in all of these three cases, will be respected and that the Supreme Court will see that this justification was a false one. But if the question remains on the census form, it’s going to be that much more important that our organizations— ones like MALDEF and our partners— work very hard to encourage communities to respond and participate in the census. But the Census Bureau also knows that with this question, they’re going to have to provide that much more support. It is going to be that much more complicated and difficult to get people to fill out the census form. And so, they know that they’re going to need to rely on us as trusted voices to make sure that people are actually returning their census form.

MARC STEINER Finally here, Andrea Senteno, I’m curious about— when the census is done every 10 years. So if the rule remains that you can ask the question of citizenship, it clearly will scare some people from answering any questions at all and even hiding from the census, and this lasts for 10 years. It affects congressional representation, it goes against figuring out who we are, and who we are made up of as a nation. So the consequence of this are much broader than asking a simple question over the next 10 years.

ANDREA SENTENO A hundred percent. The consequences of this question, like you said, they’re going to last an entire decade and even longer than that. We use this data to divvy up, as I said, congressional seats. That lasts throughout the decade but states also use this data to redistrict within their states. And so, it has a huge federal impact, but it also has a really large state and local impact, because states are using this data as a foundational set to divide up and to redistrict state district lines as well as smaller locality districts. In addition to that, federal funding is based off of decennial census data in many forms. And so, those formulas, those rolling formulas of population sets that get updated every year like the American Community Survey, the root of that data is the decennial census. And so, if we have inaccurate census data in 2020, we’re going to feel the ramifications for that in decades to come.

MARC STEINER There really is a lot at stake here for many people because if you have someone in your home who is not a citizen— we’ve already seen that people who have served in the US armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, who are not documented citizens in this country, have been deported after being wounded after having fought in wars under the United States flag. So this really makes the situation much more complex than it needs to be.

ANDREA SENTENO It definitely does. There are going to be a lot of households who may have— there may not be an entire household of non-citizens, it may be a mixed status family. And so, perhaps you have one member of the household who is a noncitizen and the head of the household is filling out that form and leaves that person off. And the Census Bureau has already said that if I have a household of four people, I fill out the census form, but I fill it out as though there are only three of us. They’re not going to send in an enumerator there. There’s no way for them to do follow-up to capture that missing person. And so, there are going to be a lot of households who may just leave people off of the roster and the Census Bureau won’t know that they exist. That is a huge concern for us because it deflates, or it minimizes the number of people in a lot of different communities, communities that are going to be directly impacted, if there is an undercount.

MARC STEINER Well Andrea Senteno, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure to have you here. Thanks for your work and taking your time for The Real News today.

ANDREA SENTENO Thank you very much for having me.

MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.