The alarm has been sounded that Trump’s census apparatchiks are planning to include a citizenship question in the short form that will be used to generate the full count in 2020. This count, mandated by the constitution and conducted every ten years, is the basis for voting district apportionment and formulas for allocating government services. Since the first census was taken in 1790 the government has enumerated all residents, citizens or not, and it hasn’t asked about legal status in decades. It’s not difficult to foresee that such a question would lead to a substantial undercount of Hispanics, especially in the current climate of immigration hysteria. That’s almost certainly the intent of the Trump plan, not an oversight.
Fortunately, there’s a way to fight this scheme through direct action: massive nonparticipation unless the question is withdrawn. Refusing to take part in the census is theoretically illegal, but since millions of residents fail to return their form by mail, prosecution is a rare event. The mail response rate for the 2010 census was about 76%, which means almost a quarter of the potential recipients didn’t make life easy for the Census Bureau. For them to be counted, enumerators had to knock on their doors and complete the process in person. These home visits are the biggest expense the Bureau faces to do its job.
Noncooperation could take one of two forms. The least demanding would be a massive refusal to respond by mail. If nonresponse could be increased by even just another 10-20% it could substantially increase the cost and decrease the reliability of the entire operation. Or, if they could stick together, noncooperators could refuse altogether—although I suspect a few highly publicized prosecutions and giant fines would cause a break in the ranks. (What would happen if crowds blocked enumerators’ access to houses the way eviction agents have been blocked during foreclosure protests?)
The rationale behind direct action would be simple: count us all or not at all. There’s even an obvious name for a steering group to organize the action, Common Census. Unless there was a plan to reimburse activists slapped with fines, it would take only a little funding to support the necessary publicity, and the demand that there be no question asking about citizenship is unambiguous. I see no reason why “count us in or count me out” wouldn’t be a fight we could win.