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Finding Census consensus

Finding Census consensus

The latest legal shoe to drop in the "We hate Donald Trump" campaign is coming at us courtesy of, predictably, our neighbors in California. It seems that CA (and a few other blue states that are waiting in the wings) is filing suit against the Federal government, trying to block a question from being inserted into the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census. Yes, you heard it right, they are objecting to one question about citizenship from being included in our Constitutionally-mandated decennial head count (we are bound by law to count ourselves as a population every ten years, so says Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution).

The Constitution uses the words "numbers" and "whole number of persons" and doesn't specify citizens or non-citizens so I would guess that this is California's complaint; that by asking if residents are citizens or non-citizens of the U.S. it would make a true count impossible because the number of California non-citizen illegal aliens admitting that they're here would be miniscule. That low official population count would cost the state some Congressional seats and considerable dollars in federal funds for Medicaid and other programs.

This looks like an attempt on California's part to strengthen and make more acceptable its nation within a nation population of illegal immigrants to the rest of us in the U.S. If all illegal aliens were counted, it would probably increase the number of its Congressional Representatives who would vote for amnesty and other future pro-illegal immigrant legislation (like instituting a nationwide policy of 'sanctuary cities').

Who uses the Census information and how?

In addition to the federal government that uses our data for apportioning Congressional Representation and for adjusting federal program funds destined for the states, the private sector uses the information to prepare all manner of reports and analyses. Political parties, non-government organizations, special interest groups, lobbyists, analytics and marketing firms all use Census data in one form or another to bolster their arguments for more influence, power and money or to target demographic groups of consumers for selling products and services.

Over the years, the U.S. Census has grown from conducting a simple human being count to including much more data like: age, race, gender, national origin (ethnicity), familial relationships, home ownership, frequency of residency of occupants in the home and even telephone numbers. (Log on to the U.S. Census website to see what kind of data the Government collects at

The 2010 Census form says that it should take no more than ten minutes to answer all the questions, so what is one more question going to cost the respondent, maybe five seconds? No problem. Right? Wrong, especially if the respondent is here illegally and fears that by giving his/her name to the citizenship question it will be shared with ICE and could result in a knock on their door sometime in the future asking to see their 'Green Card.' THAT is one of the primary reasons the Golden sanctuary State is could out its huddled illegal masses.

Truth is, the Census is not just a head count. While it doesn't go into detail about how many TVs you own or how many sleeping pills you have in your medicine cabinet, it has grown beyond its mandate. The U.S. Commerce Department (the Department under which the U.S. Census Bureau resides) wants more specificity about U.S. residents. This naturally irks strict constructionists, Libertarians or anyone wanting to preserve their privacy (and in some cases, anonymity) so they point to the first Census that used the word 'inhabitants' instead of people which I'm sure California's lawyers would say excludes identifying non-citizens. While I understand that the government is trying to get better data on citizens and non-citizens, alike, including a question like that won't give us better numbers on who's here, unlawfully, if that's the intent.

If the Feds want the answer to that question they should ask it straight out; "How many of you residing at this address are here without proper documentation?" I doubt they'd get many responses.

These days, there seems to be a preference for suing the President and/or his administration for everything, and this new Census question is but one more reason to do so. California's timing may be spot on. Given the heightened anger over government snooping and of private sector data-mining companies like Facebook selling its members' info, why would anyone want to answer the Census questions? Many people believe that the government already collects way too much information on them.

Under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, you can be fined up to $100 for refusing to complete a census form and $500 for answering questions falsely. However, the U.S. Census Bureau points out that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 effectively increased these minimum fines to $5,000. Noncompliance used to bring the possibility of a 60-day prison sentence and a one-year prison term for false answers, but Congress struck those provisions down in 1976.

Prosecutions for not completing the Census form are rare, but they have happened. Back in 1970, a Hawaii resident appealed a conviction and an accompanying $50 fine for not fully answering his questionnaire. He argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because he participated in a public protest against the Census. An appeals court agreed and it threw out his conviction. In case you're thinking of doing the same thing, you ought to be aware that when a Census form is not returned, the Census Bureau sends workers to follow up, in person. They will return as many as six times to the same residence and that information can be referred to the Justice Department as the basis for prosecution.

Perhaps there's a solution to the problem that is staring us right in the face. Why not simply ask one question and one question only like: "How many people are permanently living in your home and please include their names?" That should satisfy Article 1, Section 2 and give us all a little more confidence that we can count on the Federal Government to do its job of counting us, fairly.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired U.S. diplomat and now political analyst and author. He has written nine books and over 800 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He can be reached at:

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