Cities and immigrants drove census controversy -- 100 years ago - MPR News

President Trump says his administration was "very strongly" contemplating a delay in the 2020 census because the Supreme Court has blocked the addition of a question on citizenship status.

That shocked a lot of people in government, business and academia who have a stake in the enormous, complex and costly undertaking that counts the U.S. population every 10 years — and has done so since 1790.

Among other things, the census is meant to determine how much clout each state has in Congress, and which parts of each state have the most. So any delay in the next national head count could postpone the next round of turnover at all levels of elected office.

The census has been remarkably regular over the life of the nation.

But there was a time when Congress delayed applying the count as intended — essentially ignoring it for almost a full decade — and, like today, the controversy centered around immigration and people moving to cities.

What the census does and what it means to politics

The census numbers are used to re-slice the pie of federal funding under a variety of programs. And once each decade, these numbers are used to reallocate the seats in Congress to maintain proportional representation there (and in the Electoral College).

If a state gains population relative to other states, it gains one or more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (and thus in the Electoral College). And if a part of a state grows relative to other parts, the map of that state’s congressional districts is redrawn accordingly.

Much of the same dynamic plays out in state legislatures and local election districts as well. The national process is called reapportionment, and within each state it is called redistricting.

So the simple facts a census presents have great political consequences.

The census has been one of those elements of American life that seemed to proceed apace, whichever party was in the White House or dominating Congress. Clearly mandated in the Constitution and supported by tradition, it has generally been considered a model of evenhanded administrative achievement.

These processes commence upon completion of the decennial census.

Except for that time they did not.

What happened in 1920?

A century ago, the 1920 census was done on time, but reapportionment did not immediately follow.

That was because the 1920 census confirmed a reality that had been visible to the naked eye for years: America was becoming an urban nation, and more than ever a nation of immigrants.

The 1920 census discovered that less than half the U.S. population lived on farms, in rural areas or in towns smaller than 2,500 people. In a little more than a single generation, jobs, commerce and culture had lured millions to America’s cities and metro areas. Many came from the countryside, many came from other countries — and both movements posed challenges to the establishment in Washington.

The Congress of the early 1920s was dominated by members elected from rural districts, reflecting the economics and politics of the previous century. Most of those from the South were Democrats, but most from everywhere else were Republicans, and the Republicans had clear majorities in both chambers of Congress.

These incumbents knew that a reapportionment would cost some of their states some of their seats. But beyond that, representing a state with fewer seats would mean competing against fellow incumbents to survive. Even in the growing states, shifting power to the cities meant longtime country pols were losing out to someone preferred by city folk.

So the Republican leaders in Congress simply stalled the reapportionment bill that would have normally been enacted in 1921. Indeed, they stalled it all the way through the next four congressional election cycles. It was not until 1929 that a reapportionment law was finally enacted — even as the 1930 census was being prepared.

Deals were struck between the parties and the states in that 1929 law to enable its enactment. One deal changed the formula by which the 435 seats in the House are divided among the states. Another compromise evened out the losses for each party in the short run.

But the larger realities could not be compromised or papered over indefinitely. One was the growing claim on government resources by metro areas as opposed to farmland interests. The other was the growing presence of immigrants in those metro areas.

A century later, some of the same tensions persist

The percentage of foreign-born residents in the U.S. was estimated at 13.5% in 2018, matching the all-time record from the census of 1910. The 1920 census also showed how the clustering of immigrants in a few states was changing the populations and politics of those states — primarily in Eastern centers such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia and in the burgeoning industrial cities on the Great Lakes.

Both of the tensions that mattered in 1920 persist a century later. The distinction between voting patterns of metro and non-metro residents is as stark as it has ever been.

Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump receiving 62% of the vote in rural areas but just 35% in urban precincts. A national survey by Selzer & Co. for Grinnell College last December found Trump with 61% approval in rural areas and 31% in urban (with suburbs and small towns in the low 40s).

But the cutting edge of the census issue in our day is the immigration issue, as highlighted by the president’s own emphasis on it. Trump first emerged from the pack of Republican candidates in 2015 by emphasizing his support for a border wall with Mexico and a ban on Muslim immigrants.

Frustrated so far in his efforts to build that wall, or to overhaul the laws governing immigration, the president has sought out other means of forcing the issue. These have included his challenge to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program benefiting those brought to the U.S. illegally as minors.

Last week, the census citizenship question was thrust into the spotlight when, in reaction to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision rebuffing the administration on the issue, President Trump said he wanted to wait until the court had a chance to reconsider and "make a final and decisive decision."

But the court’s next term does not begin until October, and the Census Bureau’s printing deadlines make that highly problematic if the census is to begin in January as planned.

The court’s ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, did allow for the government to come back with a justification for adding the question. Roberts wrote that the purported reason offered by the Commerce Department (having to do with enforcing the Voting Rights Act) "seems to have been contrived" and was "incongruent with what the record reveals."

So census officials are facing a choice. They can delay their work indefinitely or they can drop the matter that seems so crucial to the president. Trump reiterated last week "it’s very important to find out if somebody is a citizen as opposed to an illegal." (It should be noted that many non-citizens reside in the U.S. legally.)

Most visible in recent days has been the policy of separating families of asylum-seekers at the Mexican border, and the controversies over the conditions in detention camps for children.

As deadlines come and go for printing the forms for the 2020 census, a delay in that institution may well be the latest way for the president to demonstrate his commitment.

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