Census-rigging question about citizenship got the Steve Bannon touch, lawsuit docs show

Trump's one-time strategist and longtime white supremacy promoter helped push for the query.

Former Trump campaign and White House strategist Steve Bannon at a March event in France. CREDIT: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images
Former Trump campaign and White House strategist Steve Bannon at a March event in France. CREDIT: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Steve Bannon helped promote a right-wing campaign to include questions about immigration status in the 2020 census, documents unveiled in a lawsuit show.

The political strategist who helped stoke white resentment that fueled President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and in his role leading Breitbart.com also sought to flag proposed changes to the census to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s attention.

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Bannon told Kansas Secretary of State and leading xenophobic wonk Kris Kobach to reach out to Ross about the issue, according to emails made public through the lawsuit. The documents also demonstrate a tidal wave of apolitical opposition to the question from sociologists and scholars.

Demographic and socioeconomic data gathered by the census is a key tool for academics across a wide range of fields, but it also directly shapes the US political map. Scientists and researchers fear that injecting legal status and citizenship questions would chill interactions between marginalized communities and census-takers, in the process distorting the political map.

The Census Scientific Advisory Committee called the question “a serious mistake” in one response to Ross’s office. John Abowd, a leading researcher with the US Census Bureau, warned in another that suppressed response rates tied to the question would add at least $27.5 million to the cost of the survey.

The danger of recruiting census-takers into the Trump administration’s broader targeting of immigrant communities are obvious. Public funding and congressional representation hinge directly on decennial census figures, meaning that any survey changes that suppress response rates could directly affect quality of life among undercounted populations for years thereafter.

It is hard to find any benefit to society from adding the immigration question.

Demographers already gauge citizenship through the American Community Survey, a non-exhaustive tool from the Census Bureau that nonetheless allows statisticians to get a good handle on immigration status questions.

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Hard-liners like Kobach — who helped write Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 “papers please” law, among other radical immigrant-targeting policies — have long wanted to incorporate citizenship questions dropped after the 1950 Census. They argue that that is the only way to fully enforce immigration laws, particularly by keeping non-citizens from accessing legal rights and public services.

But the blunter impact of the Kobach-Bannon effort would be to tilt the congressional map further in favor of Republicans. Some 18 states have sued to stop Trump from rigging the Census, noting that many of the millions who would likely avoid answering do have legal status in the U.S.

The constitutional provision required a census specifically calls for counting the whole number of “persons” in each state, without regard to their citizenship status. Artificially suppressing the count by frightening people would not only violate that requirement, but potentially cost states enormous sums of public money for services like health care.

Undercounting by even one percent in Texas, for example, could cost the state $300 million in federal health care funding. A total of nearly $700 billion in federal spending is pegged to Census results.