There is little doubt about it: President Trump has not forgiven California for voting against him by a margin of more than 3 million votes, thus costing him the bragging rights of a popular vote victory.
His most effective, potentially long-lasting way of punishing this state comes down to one question on the census his administration will run starting less than 18 months from now:
Trump and his secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, say they will for the first time in 60 years ask every person questioned by the census – required every 10 years by the U.S. Constitution – whether he or she is an American citizen.
This question was abandoned after the 1960 Census because it led to so many obvious undercounts of immigrants in the surveys for several decades before that.
Now Trump wants to bring it back because he wants an undercount of immigrants, especially in California. An undercount would be absolutely assured by the presence of the citizenship question in part because Trump and Ross promise no confidentiality to respondents. Anyone who admits not being a citizen would be subject to actions by federal agencies including the often-dreaded ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This would surely punish the state Trump resents most by depriving it of billions of dollars in federal grant money all through the 2020s. If it also led to California losing a seat or two in Congress, that too would be fitting punishment in Trump’s obvious view.
It’s true California’s appointed attorney general, Xavier Becerra, sued five months ago trying to keep the question out of the census, but that action has slim chance for success as the Constitution says nothing about what questions the census should include or omit. Times change, the Founding Fathers seemed to understand, so census questions will, too.
If Becerra’s lawsuit, which has been joined by other states fearing undercounts, like New York and Illinois, were to fail, Gov. Jerry Brown or his successor will be presented with a unique opportunity, maybe even a legacy maker.
For if the question is included, and the governor wants California to keep getting the full $100 billion-plus it now receives in federal support for everything from roads to sewers to police and fire protection, the state must respond with a big effort to convince undocumented immigrants they should participate and not hide from census takers when they start knocking on doors around the nation.
That’s because much federal money is not doled out according to how many citizens live in a state or city or political district, but rather by how many people live there.
That’s critical for California because it hosts more than 3 million of the nation’s estimated 10 million-plus illegal immigrants. Even if they can’t vote, they still seek emergency health care, they still drive local roads and highways, their children still attend public schools, they still use water and they still need help after natural disasters like fires, floods and earthquakes.
All those services are supported at least in part by federal funds drawn primarily from income taxes, of which California has long paid more than its fair share.
Every 10 years, California mounts a loud campaign to convince illegal immigrants to let themselves be counted. That task will be harder than ever this time because of the citizenship question and the lack of confidentiality which has been part of previous Census efforts.
Brown and his successor will need to create a large agency to pursue this effort aggressively, possibly hiring as many temporary advocates as the census will hire temps of its own to carry questionnaires into millions of homes.
If the current and future governors don’t do that – and Brown needs to start immediately – they risk an undercount that would see Californians’ tax money that should come back here go to other states like Virginia and Tennessee and Montana and the Dakotas, where numbers of the undocumented are minimal.
If Brown starts a major effort right away, even though it’s not in the current budget, he could go down in history as the man who began saving California from Trump’s attempted non-violent vengeance – a legacy he could carry proudly the rest of his life.