Since his inauguration, President Biden has signed a flurry of executive actions, reversing Trump’s discriminatory travel ban, repealing the ban on transgender military service, and re-joining the Paris Agreement. These moves were widely lauded as rejections of the intolerance of the Trump era, but, in the wave of press coverage, several crucial actions failed to garner much attention. Among them was Biden’s order that undocumented immigrants be counted in the decennial Census, a move that overturns Trump’s attempt to exclude them from the 2020 Census. Behind Trump’s executive orders was a plan to ensure that fewer Latinx people were represented in congressional districts.
“[I]t is the policy of the United States that reapportionment shall be based on the total number of persons residing in the several States, without regard for immigration status,” Biden wrote.
The language of Biden’s order is particularly technical, which unfortunately obscures its most salient details. Far from being about mere data collection, this action gets at the root of the GOP’s political strategy. Biden’s order is a repudiation not just of Trump, but of a wider effort to use gerrymandering to erode the political power of immigrant communities and communities of color.
Trump’s Exclusionary Orders
Most people do not associate the Census with politics. The survey, filled out every 10 years by US inhabitants, merely asks participants to answer a handful of questions about the people in each household. It is not surprising, then, that few understand how central it is to the distribution of political power. As enshrined in the 14th Amendment, the Census determines the number of representatives apportioned among the states. The language is clear: all inhabitants (with the exception of some Indigenous Americans) must be included.
Trump, however, did everything in his power to ensure that large segments of the population – namely immigrants and people of color – were excluded from the apportionment base. The Trump administration started this pursuit in earnest in 2018, beginning by pushing for a citizenship question to be included on the 2020 Census. This 19-month effort was stopped short in 2019; the Supreme Court blocked the attempt, stating that the administration did not provide proper justification for including it. Subsequently, Trump reversed course, announcing on July 11 that he would instead use federal departments and agencies to collect “citizenship data.”
This executive order was denounced by civil rights groups as a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate undocumented immigrants — many who are Latinx — and dissuade them from participating in the Census. In Texas and Arizona, Latinx advocacy groups were the first to sue to block the government from collecting the data, arguing that the Trump administration was working to prevent their communities from being fairly represented.
Then, in an overt move to exclude immigrants from the apportionment base, the White House issued a memorandum declaring that going forward, noncitizens would not be considered “inhabitants” of the country. Redefining the term allowed them to circumvent the 14th Amendment’s directive that the Census count every person living in the US.
“Many of these aliens entered the country illegally in the first place. Increasing congressional representation based on the presence of aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status would also create perverse incentives encouraging violations of federal law,” the Trump administration memorandum stated.
In an analysis published shortly after Trump’s announcement, the UVA Center for Clear Politics projected that the move would change the number of House seats allocated once districts were redrawn in 2021. The report predicted that eight states, including California, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, would lose seats, with California, the largest blue state, losing two. Seven states, including Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, and Florida were projected to pick up seats, with Texas, the largest red state, gaining two.
An Old GOP Strategy
Though it was Trump who embraced these exclusionary Census policies, he was far from alone in his crusade to strip immigrant communities of representation.
The man behind the push for the citizenship question was the late Thomas Hoeffler, a top Republican redistricting strategist. Gerrymandering — the manipulation of the boundaries of congressional districts to favor a particular party — had been practiced in the US for decades, but Hoeffler’s mapmaking took it to a new level. In 2000, Hoeffler said of the process, “Redistricting is like an election in reverse…Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.”
Hoeffler’s ploy to exclude Latinx immigrants was an explicit part of his redistricting strategy; the Census question was just the latest in a series of attempts. A 2015 study conducted by Hoeffler concluded that basing House apportionment solely off of voting-age citizens “…would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites.”
Redistricting in 2021
Ultimately, Trump’s directives failed to deliver the results that he hoped they would. The citizenship question was not included in the 2020 Census (though the Trump administration still collected citizenship data) and, even before Biden assumed office, the Census Bureau stopped work on Trump’s request that they produce a count of noncitizens.
Regardless, Biden’s executive order is an important rejection of Trump’s attack on immigrant communities. In signing it, he re-affirms the 14th Amendment, requiring the Census count to include the “whole number of persons in each state.” Though gerrymandering remains an insidious force in politics, when redrawn this year, the congressional district map will not be as drastically altered as the GOP had hoped.
Now that President Joe Biden is in office, he can easily roll back many Trump policies that minimized the power of certain communities. Redistricting, however, only comes about once every 10 years; had Trump’s plan to enshrine these policies into the Census been successful, it would have shaped the political landscape for a decade.