Cowen: More immigrants and a census citizenship question are needed

The Trump administration is seeking to restore the citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census even after the Supreme Court ruled against it and the Commerce Secretary said the effort to do so would be dropped. The legality and practicality of this decision are unclear, and a federal judge has given the White House a Friday afternoon deadline to explain how it intends to proceed, but I would like to step back and consider some basic questions about this rather embarrassing debacle.

Even if you are pro-immigration, as I am, I believe you should favor asking U.S. residents whether they are citizens when the population is counted.

Unlike many of those who push for the question, I would like to boost the flow of legal immigration by a factor or two or three. Nonetheless, are we supposed to let foreigners in (which I favor), and give them a rapid path to citizenship (which I also favor), but somehow we are not allowed to ask them if they are citizens? To me this boggles the mind.

The U.S. asked a citizenship question on the Census starting in 1820 and up until 1950, so it is hard to argue that the idea is unacceptable altogether.

I do understand the following realities. First, asking about citizenship information will make the Census less reliable, as fewer people will respond, typically immigrants but also including some actual citizens and legal permanent residents. An accurate Census has pragmatic value for economic policymaking and also for research. Perhaps most importantly for the current debate, asking about citizenship will lead to a recalculation of electoral districts in a manner which will favor the Republican Party (Latinos are likely to respond at lower rates, and that will apportion less representation to Democratic-leaning areas). It also would reallocate federal dollars away from Democratic-leaning areas.

If you are a Democrat, a Never Trumper, or perhaps just were appalled by the partisan Republican motives behind the move to add the citizenship question, probably I cannot convince you that it’s a good idea. Nonetheless, I would like to suggest another way of framing the debate, one which might at least make you less negative if the question somehow finds its way back on the Census, either in 2020 or beyond.

Do you really wish for your view to be so closely affiliated with the attitude that citizenship is a thing to hide? I would be embarrassed if my own political strategy implied that I take a firm view — backed by strong moralizing — that we not ask individuals about their citizenship on the Census form. I would think somehow I was, if only in the longer run, making a huge political blunder to so rest the fate of my party on insisting on not asking people about their citizenship.

Not asking about citizenship seems to signify an attitude toward immigrants something like this: Get them in and across the border, their status may be mixed and their existence may be furtive, and let’s not talk too openly about what is going on, and later we will try to get all of them citizenship. Given the current disagreement between the two parties on immigration questions, that may well be the only way of getting more immigrants into the U.S., which I hold to be a desirable goal. But that is a dangerous choice of political turf, and it may not help the pro-immigration cause in the longer run.

The rationalist in me prefers an open debate about letting more people in legally. Countries that do let in especially high percentages of legal immigrants, such as Canada and Australia, take pretty tough stances in controlling their borders. Both of those countries ask about citizenship on their censuses. When citizens feel in control of the process, they may be more generous in terms of opening the border.

The U.S. needs more immigrants for reasons that stretch from the cultural to the fiscal to the economic. But as long as it keeps taking in immigrants in torturous and not entirely legal ways, the debate over higher legal immigration will continue to founder. Americans won’t confront the need to raise the legal quotas because the illegal arrivals are an imperfect substitute.

The immigration debate would go better if the focus could shift to legal, publicly recognized rights to citizenship, later to be declared openly in response to governmental inquiries. I would like to see the pro-immigration party — today the Democrats — embrace this shift.

Even if in the short run they lose some seats, give up some federal dollars, and have to accept a whacking to their pride.

— Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, writes for Bloomberg Opinion.

Today's Bible verse

“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

— Psalm 23:6

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