On Monday, the U.S. Commerce Dept. announced something that sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to do: It will include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census.
Who doesn’t want to know how many among us are native-born and how many come from other countries?
But if you scratch just below the surface, this seemingly innocuous policy change reveals a deeper, more partisan motivation. And it has the potential to lead to a shift in political and economic power that could reverberate for years to come.
Critics correctly charge that the inclusion of a citizenship question would lead to undercounts, disproportionately impacting states with large immigrant populations. That’s because immigrants - both legal and undocumented - have been traditionally reluctant to participate in the Census, which is a count of everyone living in a state, not just citizens.
The affected states, by the way, tend to have Democratic governing majorities.
And undercounts could lead, in turn, to lost Congressional seats and fewer Electoral College votes. It also would reduce the flow of money from Washington into state budget coffers.
Observers say that dilution of Congressional representation would tilt the balance of power to less populous rural states, which tend to have Republican governing majorities.
That’s in defiance of demographic trends, which shows the country becoming more ethnically and racially diverse in the coming decades.
The country’s non-Hispanic white population, for instance, is expected to shrink from 199 million in 2020 to 179 million in 2060.
“I think the main motivation is to secure an undercount,” Tom Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told The Washington Post in January. “Texas is a very red state. They know that is not going to be the case for very much longer.”
In three states that Trump carried in 2016 - Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - immigrants (both legal and undocumented) are comprising a larger share of the population.
At the same time, the overall population of those three states is simultaneously growing older and grayer. That means an increased demand for services. And those services cost money.
According to data compiled by the American Immigration Council, Ohio is home to “a growing community” of immigrants.
Foreign-born residents currently make up about 4 percent of the Buckeye State’s overall population. But one in six Ohioans working in the sciences are immigrants.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s population is getting a lot older, a lot faster, according to data compiled by the Ohio Public Expenditure Council.
The council’s data shows retirees outnumbering those in the workforce by about 750,000 people. The state’s median age is expected to rise from 36 to 40, The Associated Press reported, citing the council’s data.
It’s the same drill in Wisconsin, where immigrants make up 5 percent of the state’s population. Like Ohio, it too, faces the challenge of an aging workforce, Wisconsin Public Radio reported in 2016, citing data by the nonpartisan Ohio Taxpayers Alliance.
Ditto for Pennsylvania, where immigrants currently make up about 6 percent of state residents, according to the American Immigration Council, based on 2015 data.
That’s 837,159 foreign-born people in a state with a population of more than 12 million.
Pennsylvania’s population will grow similarly grayer, with projections showing the 70-plus set notching a 63 percent increase by 2040. In 2010, adults aged 65 and older made up about 15 percent of the state’s total population. By 2040, they’ll be nearly a quarter (23 percent).
Blue state attorneys general have already sued over the change, arguing that it violates a mandate in the U.S. Constitution that the decennial population count includes an “actual enumeration” of all the people living in each state.
Whether that challenge is successful is a separate matter. But the issues it raises are genuine.
But if critics’ concerns are proven true, and the new citizenship question leads to an undercount; and that, in turn leads, in turn to a reduction in federal money to Pennsylvania and other states Trump carried, residents could find themselves paying higher taxes and fees to cover the increased demand for services for older residents.
The added bonus would be reduced clout on Capitol Hill.
Be careful of what you wish for.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at email@example.com.