In backing down from his plan to include a question about U.S. citizenship on next year's census form, President Donald Trump on Thursday gave credence to the claims of critics that his administration had an ulterior -- and partisan -- motive in pressing for inclusion of the question.
During rambling remarks in the Rose Garden, the president let a very big cat out of the bag by suggesting that data about how many citizens and noncitizens there are -- which he ordered his administration to collect "by other means" -- could help states that "may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter-eligible population."
That, of course, isn't the reason the administration cited for wanting to include a citizenship question: It had claimed that it needed data about citizenship in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Last month the Supreme Court said dryly that the voting-rights rationale was "contrived."
But using citizenship data for redistricting would serve what critics long have argued was the administration's overriding objective: to help Republicans and hurt Democrats.
One way a citizenship question could accomplish that objective would be to frighten undocumented immigrants so that they wouldn't participate in the census, fearing that responding to the citizenship question would tip off immigration enforcement. That could result in an undercount in areas with large numbers of non-citizens -- areas that are more likely to be represented by Democrats.
But the GOP would also be helped by the idea floated by Trump on Thursday: drawing district lines on the basis of the "voter-eligible population."
In a 2016 case from Texas, the Supreme Court ruled that states don't violate the Constitution or the principle of "one person, one vote" when they use total population -- including children and noncitizens who aren't eligible to vote -- as the basis for legislative redistricting. But the court left for another day the opposite question of whether a state could choose to count eligible voters only in drawing lines.
Doing so would be a bad idea. The Los Angeles Times editorial board noted in 2015 that if California were to draw district lines to reflect only eligible voters, "power would shift away from areas heavily populated by noncitizens, many of them Latino. Some districts would expand as a result, making it harder for state legislators to address individual constituents' problems and for residents to sway those legislators." But those same trends would help the Republican Party.
Trump's remarks provide vindication for critics who portrayed the quest for a citizenship question as an attempt to gain partisan advantage. But Trump also said something his critics should agree with: that U.S. citizenship is "a very important thing."
Granted, he made that observation as part of a snide diatribe against "far-left Democrats" who "are determined to conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst." But his underlying point was correct.
U.S. citizenship is important; it's not just a "piece of paper." It represents full inclusion in this society and is something immigrants should be encouraged to aspire to. It's no accident that many supporters of comprehensive immigration reform rightly call for a "pathway to citizenship" -- not just legal status -- for millions of undocumented immigrants who have established lives here.
In 2014, as part of a series titled "The 21st Century Citizen," the editorial board of this newspaper criticized proposals to allow noncitizens to vote. We wrote: "It is not healthy if large numbers of permanent residents, workers and taxpayers are excluded from voting. But the answer is not to sever voting -- or jury service, for that matter -- from citizenship. It is rather to expand the circle of citizenship."
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