Now that President Trump has dropped his push to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census, Democrats will be tempted to claim victory and move on. Instead, both parties should promote a long-term solution to the issues raised by there being so many non-citizens counted in the drawing of congressional districts: encourage legal immigrants to become naturalized American citizens. Doing so would require both an endorsement of the meaning and value of citizenship but also a lowering of existing monetary and logistical barriers to naturalization.
It may well be true that including the citizenship question on the Census form would have discouraged immigrants, intimidated by the president’s rhetoric and stepped-up deportation threats, not to respond and thus to go uncounted. But that does not mean the status quo should not be changed. Democrats should acknowledge that, just as the structure of the Senate currently favors Republicans so, too, does the way in which the Constitution requires that congressional districts be determined favors Democrats.
Because representation is determined not by the number of potential voters but, as per the Constitution, a count of all residents, no matter their legal status, parts of the country where Democrats predominate tend to benefit. According to an Axios analysis, there are some 50 Democratic districts in which the foreign-born population tops 40%. There are only 10 such Republican districts. Counting residents who cannot vote may swell the number of Democratic seats — but it’s not good for democracy when residents have no voice in who represents them.
The best way to rectify the problem is a national naturalization drive. But doing so means making it easier for legal immigrants to become citizens. That does not mean that we should make the 10-question citizenship test easier nor make it available in languages other than English. Just as we did during the wave of early 20th century immigration, we should want new Americans to know the common language, in part for their own benefit.
But it’s worth asking why undertaking the naturalization process should require, as it currently does, a $730 fee. This is no small amount for a working class newcomer. The process should not be without any cost — we tend to value more that for which we pay — but $100 or even less seems reasonable.
Just as important, steps must be taken to make the naturalization process go more quickly. The Immigration and Naturalization Service reports that, 2017, a total of 986,851 applications for citizenship were submitted but only 707,265 persons were naturalized. The figures were similar for 2016: 972,151 applications but only 753,060 approved. About 80,000 applications were denied each year — leaving many others just in limbo. We can do better, and we have. In 2008, perhaps reflecting the legacy of the pro-immigration George W. Bush Administration, more than 1 million persons became naturalized citizens.
There are political reasons for Democrats to resist a citizenship campaign. But it’s the right thing for America and the right next step to take.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Daily News
Howard Husock is vice president for policy research and publications at the Manhattan Institute.
Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty