Today a United States District Court judge in New York struck down an attempt by the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire. Judge Jess Furman cited the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in ruling against Commerce Department head Wilbur Ross, who proposed adding the citizenship question on specious grounds. The APA allows judicial review of a rules change by a federal government agency when a lawsuit is brought by an aggrieved party or party, in this case the New York Immigration Council (NYIC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among others. In other words, the APA gives citizens an avenue to check federal agencies directly, without waiting on Congress, so that agencies can’t change their rules willy nilly based on political whims.
2010 census percentage change in minority population by county, showing an increase in typically Democratic voters in areas that have been Republican strongholds, such as the Southeast and the Mountain West. Illustration by U.S. Census Bureau.
The specious grounds the current presidential administration was using to add the citizenship question involved a far-fetched cover story about getting information to better enable the Justice Department to enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when in practice the question was intended to intimidate mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants and possibly other minorities into not responding to the census questionnaire. Like state voter suppression laws, the census citizenship question could be used as a cudgel by Republicans to beat back the tide of typical Democratic voters and supporters. Illegal immigrants can’t vote, but counting their numbers usually benefits Democratic congressional districts when it comes to apportioning seats in Congress and the distribution of federal funds.
The history of the census in the United States is rife with political intrigue going back to the first one in 1790, when the big question involved counting of slaves. Like Hispanic illegal immigrants today, African forced immigrants in the first century of the republic could not vote, but counting their numbers was still vital for the reasons stated above. Once they could vote, after Emancipation, Southern conservatives did all in their power to ensure they could not exercise their right freely by enacting Jim Crow laws and practices to hinder them, often with threats of violence either implicit or explicit.
2010 census percentage change in Hispanic population by county, showing the widespread nature of the increase. Illustration by U.S. Census Bureau.
Southern white conservatives were Democrats then, in the late nineteenth century and up to the middle of the twentieth century, but shifts in national policy such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act changed that, flipping conservative Southern Democrats over to the Republican Party, where they remain today. In the meantime, African-Americans, attracted by manufacturing jobs in the North that paid better wages than agricultural labor in the South, moved away in great numbers during World War I, a mass migration which had the effect of relieving pressure on what had been the white minority in many congressional districts in the South.
Reapportionment of Congressional seats as determined by results of the 2010 census. State legislatures use these results to redraw districts, sometimes in grievous examples of partisan gerrymandering. Illustration by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Now the Republican, conservative, white population in areas around the country besides the South feels threatened by impending minority status for themselves brought on by the increasing numbers of Hispanic immigrants, legal and otherwise, and by their relatively high birthrates. Thus far their have been no serious proposals for forced sterilization of Hispanics, as their had been for black people one hundred years ago. Instead the tactics of conservative white Republicans, no longer limited to the Old South, but spread around the country, consist of a citizenship question on the census questionnaire designed to drive illegal immigrants further into hiding, and since the immigrants often end up supporting Democrats even if they cannot vote, the intimidation would have the effect of depriving Democrats of additional seats in Congress and federal funds based on population alone. Once the new citizens are able to vote, Republicans have a bevy of voter suppression tactics ready to challenge them. Jim Crow just keeps popping up in new guises, cawing at the poor and unfortunate “Who are you? Who are you?”
The crudity and vindictiveness of Supreme Leader’s response to criticisms of his lackadaisical leadership in disaster recovery efforts for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria has been startling even for him, a crude and vindictive man. Certainly racism and sexism play a part, as they do in much of his behavior, but in this case there is the disquieting sense there is something more at work, and as is often the case, it helps to follow the money.
The Buccaneer Was a Picturesque Fellow, a 1905 painting by Howard Pyle (1853-1911) used as an illustration in Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main.
Supreme Leader dropped the clue himself when he referred to Puerto Rico’s high debt load, adding that the Puerto Ricans must nonetheless continue to repay their debts despite their currently dire situation. What an odd thing to mention in discussion of relief efforts for a population struggling for survival! Did he mean those words to be taken to heart by the Puerto Ricans, who now have more pressing worries? No, not as much as he meant his words to reassure the holders of Puerto Rico’s over 70 billion dollars’ worth of promissory notes on Wall Street.
At the 18th hole of the AT&T National Pro-Am Tournament in 2006, Supreme Leader (not his title then) leans on his golf club. The pirates have exchanged their muskets for golf clubs. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.
Puerto Rico has no representatives in Congress and no votes in the Electoral College. It is a territory, and while its people are citizens of the United States, they have no say in federal matters relating to their island. On June 11, 2017, Puerto Ricans voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood, but the decision to make Puerto Rico a state still resides with Congress. Most Puerto Ricans identify as Democrats, and since both house of Congress currently are controlled by Republicans, it is unlikely Puerto Rico will see a change in its political status anytime soon. The island’s people are effectively second-class citizens; to become first-class citizens, they must either make their island one of the United States, or entirely independent.
Mainland political interests are against Puerto Rico statehood, and there are also economic interests against it, such as large corporations and Wall Street banks that seek to continue plundering the island, an activity made easier by Puerto Rico existing politically between the devil and the deep blue sea. Who cares if the Puerto Ricans are suffering in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which have piled on to an economic recession which started for them over ten years ago and has continued to worsen? Certainly not sociopaths like Supreme Leader and his economic advisors Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, both formerly of Wall Street.
The damage caused by Supreme Leader, Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, and other members of our ruling class is far more deplorable than what Monty Python depicted in this TV sketch, but still it helps to ridicule them.
It’s not as if Puerto Rico has 38 electoral votes like Texas, where Hurricane Harvey landed, or 29 like Florida, where Hurricane Irma continued its devastation after leaving the Caribbean islands, or even 3 votes like the District of Columbia, with its population otherwise shut out of federal representation but for those 3 measly electoral college votes. Puerto Ricans have zero votes. Not one vote in the electoral college, in the House of Representatives, or in the Senate. No one speaks for them. Thanks to its colonial relationship to the United States, however, there is money to be pillaged from its poor and working class people, and what’s left of its dwindling middle class. That’s why Supreme Leader acted the way he did, and tweeted what he tweeted, because he was looking out for himself and his cronies, and that’s his real constituency. Why would he care one way or the other about the Puerto Ricans?