Becoming a citizen didn’t take much work in the early days of the United States. Under the Naturalization Act of 1790, then replaced with more clear guidelines spelled out in the Naturalization Act of 1795, it only took being white, free and having lived in the country for two years.
If those three criteria were met, the person could go before a judge, swear their allegiance to the United States and they and their children would become citizens.
Taking the census back then also was pretty simple. A person knocked on the door of a farmhouse, asked how many “free persons” lived there, whether they had any slaves, wrote the information down and went to the next farmhouse.
The census in recent years has become more a data-mining operation than a residency count. Remembering back to the 1990 census, questions about education levels and how many bathrooms were in the house were the part of the long form. Going back to that simpler time of just counting people would be welcoming.
Whether someone is a citizen is the latest debate on the census form, and as we wrote when the issue emerged in March 2018, there is nothing improper about asking it. Just as the intrusive long-form questions of censuses past, what becomes of the data in Big Brother’s hands is a legitimate concern.
Honestly, it would be nice to have an accurate count on how many illegal immigrants are in this country instead of relying on demographer’s guestimates. If that could be done without a fear of it resulting in roundups and internment camps as we had for the Japanese in World War II, the information would be useful.
If there is something to fear about the citizenship question, however, it is the dictatorial methods being considered to ensure it is asked.
During an interview Monday with The Associated Press, Attorney General William Barr said he expects in coming days to announce a way be believes will legally justify putting the question on census forms. He offered no details, because why spoil the surprise.
Whatever legal contortionism Barr devises, it will be an example of executive authoritarianism, one that should concern all of us regardless of party or ideology. The balance of power is fundamental to what makes America great, and overexertion of power by one branch in defiance of others could cause it all to crumble.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently blocked the question, at least temporarily, saying the administration’s justification for including it “seems to have been contrived.” Chief Justice John Roberts found the Commerce Department — and its Department of Justice defenders — had largely ignored provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act requiring it provide reasoned decision-making to support its actions.
Yet the administration believes President Donald Trump, writing a memo instructing the Commerce Department to include the question, is all that is required to make it so.
In other words, ignore the Supreme Court. Ignore the laws written by Congress. A fiat is all that is required.
Concerns over how many elected representatives each state will have seems moot if ruling by executive decree is the supreme law of the land. And as is the norm in the extremist perceptions of modern politics, those who spent eight years decrying “King Obama” are silent now.
It would be nice to return to the simpler times of our nation’s founding when the purpose of the census was merely to determine how many people live in the country — and when we were clear about not wanting to be ruled by a king.