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Cities And Immigrants Drove Census Controversy — 100 Years Ago

People gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last month as decisions are handed down, including on the census.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
People gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last month as decisions are handed down, including on the census.

Day after day, you're seeing stories about the 2020 census on the front page and all over TV news, even though the once-a-decade head count is still months away.

The president wants the census questionnaire to include: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" He's willing to delay the count "for as long as it takes" to have it his way.

But Census Bureau officials say such a question will chill cooperation, suppress the count by millions and distort the relative populations of states. They say counting all persons present in the country has been the mission of the census since it was invented in the Constitution.

States sued to block the citizenship question and in June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it could only be added with proper justification. Chief Justice John Roberts said the justification the administration had offered – to help enforce the Voting Rights Act – was not supported by evidence. "Contrived" was the term he used.

So now we have a court fight and a loud, cacophonous argument about racism and the rule of law on the other. And you can practically hear Americans asking: when did the census get so political?

And the answer to that question is: Right from the start.

The whole idea of the census originally was to decide how many seats each state would get in Congress. Each state would get two seats in the Senate, with the seats in the House of Representatives determined based on population.

As the system evolved, the states also drew districts so the House members would represent the various parts of each state. State legislatures were apportioned and mapped in the same way.

These vital functions of the democratic system have been triggered by each new census with remarkable regularity since 1790 — except that one time they weren't.

The special case of the 1920 census

It was just a century ago when the 1920 Census came in and the Congress chose to ignore it. The reasons were as political as they could be, and it was all about immigration and the rising power of the cities — tensions that persist in the present day census crisis as well.

The problem was that the 1920 census had definitively proved that America had become an urban nation – and, more than ever, a nation of immigrants. Less than half the U.S. population still lived on farms, in rural areas or in towns smaller than 2,500.

In a little more than a single generation, jobs and 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 still dominated by members elected from rural districts, reflecting the economics and politics of the previous century. These included Democrats from the rural South, but Republicans dominated the rural areas everywhere else and enjoyed clear majorities in both chambers of Congress.

These incumbents in both parties knew that a reapportionment would cost some of their states seats. Beyond that, the subsequent redrawing of the districts would force individual members to compete with each other in a game of musical chairs.

Moreover, the new seats to be created would be centered in the metro areas where city folk would people would vote for someone of their own.

So these incumbents attacked the census as inaccurate, as well as insensate to the rural soul of the nation as they knew it. The agrarian worldview of Thomas Jefferson was still like religion to much of Congress. (Jefferson once wrote that "The mobs of great cities add just as much to the support of pure government as sores do to the strength of the human body.")

Just as obvious as the growth of cities was the contribution immigrants were making to that growth. The percentage of foreign-born residents in the U.S. had spiked to a record high (13.5%) in the decade before 1920, and it was concentrated in the industrial metros of the Northeast and the Great Lakes.

Republicans in Congress saw the arrival of immigrants as a direct threat. One member from Kansas had a chart suggesting that the counting of non-citizens nationally had an impact on the number of seats apportioned to 16 states. He proposed a constitutional amendment to bar the census from counting anyone who had not become a naturalized citizen. Members from Kentucky and Tennessee said they wanted to do the same.

In response, the Republican leaders in Congress simply stalled the reapportionment bill that would have normally been enacted after the census. And 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.

Roots of the contemporary controversy

The original Constitution (Article I, Section 2) committed to a House of 65 seats, assigned to the states based on their relative, approximate population. Thus Virginia would have 10, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts eight each, and so on – down to Delaware and Rhode Island with one each.

But the original ratio was just a starting point. The Constitution set in motion an "actual enumeration" of residents, and the first census takers rode out on horseback in 1790.

All the other uses of the census we know today, from the distribution of federal program funds to the myriad commercial and academic purposes, came later. And they were all ancillary to the original idea of popular representation, an essential tool for a democratic republic.

The census, and the apportionment of seats that followed, was a mechanism that also recognized the reality that the new nation was not one unit but a union of previously sovereign states. It was a contract among several separate entities that insisted on their own rights and identities.

Given these origins, the census and reapportionment are inevitably controversial. Attendees at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 argued long and hard about how to count slaves, an issue that nearly caused the whole enterprise to collapse.

In the end, the convention adopted the "three-fifths compromise" by which slaves would count in the census but only as three-fifths of a person. That compromise may seem shocking today. But in the America of 1787, it got the deal done. And it persisted until the Civil War brought the 13th and 14th Amendments and a mandate for "counting the whole number of persons in each State."

In the 20th Century, the census was a hot potato for other reasons. It figured in the measuring of unemployment during the Great Depression. It played a role in the efforts to redraw congressional districts within the states during the Civil Rights Movement.

In the years before and after the census of 2000, more attention was paid to the under-counting of some groups – especially newer arrivals and people of color. Efforts to supplement the census "nose count" with statistical sampling and other contemporary techniques of social science met stiff resistance from Republicans in Congress.

More recently, questions have been raised about the Census Bureau's definitions of terms such as marriage and family — and also its determinations of gender.

And now, under the Trump administration, the census has once again come to focus on the issue of immigration.

Many of the tensions of 1920 Census persist today

Both the rural-urban tension and the immigration pressure of 1920 are palpable in the conflicts of the upcoming census.

The distinction between voting patterns of metro and non-metro residents is stark. Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump receiving 62% of the vote in rural areas but just 35% in urban precincts. A national poll by Selzer & Co. for Grinnell College in December found corroborating evidence: Trump had 61% approval in rural areas and just 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 "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. until we figure out what the hell is going on."

Frustrated so far in his efforts to build that wall, or to overhaul immigration law more generally, the president has looked for other ways to force 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.

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.

Given the adverse public reaction to both these initiatives, the president may sense greater acceptance of his citizenship question on the census. And if denied the question by the courts, the president can surely make that a grievance to campaign on in 2020.

This post was originally published on July 9, 2019.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.