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Column: Trump administration says a citizenship question on the census will help enforce voting rights. Sure

Copies of the 2010 Census forms in Phoenix. The 2020 U.S. Census will add a question about citizenship status, a move that brought swift condemnation from Democrats who said it would intimidate immigrants and discourage them from participating.
Copies of the 2010 Census forms in Phoenix. The 2020 U.S. Census will add a question about citizenship status, a move that brought swift condemnation from Democrats who said it would intimidate immigrants and discourage them from participating.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

He went ahead and did it. Of course he did. Bashing California is way too much fun and easy for President Trump.

California Democratic leaders shouldn’t be shocked. Politically, they had it coming, proudly emerging as the president’s chief antagonist while revving up their liberal and Latino bases.

Not that Trump didn’t deserve it. He has been feeding his political base by assailing California and immigrants in the country illegally since first running for president.

But when a state plays hardball with a president — especially a brawler like Trump — it should expect to get hit hard. A president always has a bigger bat.

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In the 2020 decennial census, Trump wants to hurt California politically and financially, as well as find more immigrants to deport.

That’s not what he’s saying. But virtually no one buys the official version of why he plans to ask everyone in America whether they are a U.S. citizen. The administration claims it’s to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Citizenship data is needed, it contends, to determine the accurate number of eligible voters in regions where abuses are alleged.

Sure!

Most likely, the goal is to scare undocumented immigrants into avoiding the census. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to tally every American resident, whether here legally or not. Census numbers are used to apportion congressional seats to each state. They also provide the basis for distributing federal tax money to states and local governments.

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Given the Trump administration’s obsession with booting out immigrants here illegally, you couldn’t blame any undocumented person for refusing to touch a census form. Despite assurances that all information will remain confidential, Trump’s record hardly creates trust.

There are an estimated 2.3 million immigrants in California illegally. If a significant number weren’t counted, it would cost the state one or more U.S. House seats. Each district represents roughly 711,000 people. We now have 53 seats, by far the most in the country. Texas is next with 36.

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Red Texas aside, blue states with lots of undocumented immigrants such as New York stand to lose the most. Faster-growing red states will benefit. So this could mean a meaningful shift of political power from Democrats to Republicans in Washington — also in state legislatures from immigrant-heavy cities to some rural areas.

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And there’d be a shift of presidential electoral votes from blue states to red. Electoral votes are calculated by adding each state’s House districts to its two U.S. Senate seats.

Moreover, there’d be a loss of federal funds in states with large immigrant populations. In Sacramento, the Brown administration estimates that for each person not counted, it would mean nearly $2,000 less each year in federal money. That could easily total $2 billion or more annually in California.

Trump would be shifting federal tax dollars from California and other blue states to his red-states base.

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to spend $40 million to promote census participation, a good investment.

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Coverage of California politics »

U.S. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, a crusader against illegal immigration, urged the Census Bureau in December to insert the citizenship inquiry into its 2020 questionnaire. That question hasn’t been asked in a decennial census since 1950. It has been included in smaller, more detailed head-counting, but not in any census that determined congressional apportionment or federal dollars distribution.

The Trump administration announced last week it would add the question. And California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra immediately filed a lawsuit seeking to block it. At least a dozen other states, led by New York, announced they’d also sue.

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Becerra is suing on two grounds. He claims that asking the citizenship question will undermine the constitutional mandate that the census count every resident. He also contends the administration is proceeding in a way that violates a federal law prohibiting “arbitrary and capricious” action by agencies.

Actually, Becerra has sued or joined other states’ legal actions against Trump at least 31 times. It’s hard to keep count. The suits have challenged the president over immigration — including deportation threats to “Dreamers” and building the border wall — plus Obamacare, greenhouse gas emissions, coal production, clean water…. Name it.

I asked the Democrat if all these suits were necessary.

“Those suits are meant to protect the values that have made California the economic engine for this country,” Becerra said. “If they were not legitimate, we would be losing in court. We have a stream of victories.”

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Does he think Trump is retaliating? The president also is suing California over its so-called sanctuary state laws. And he signed a tax overhaul that disproportionately hurts many Californians.

“I really don’t worry about [motives],” Becerra answered. “I concern myself with his deeds.”

But in an op-ed piece last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla declared that the citizenship question “is an extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes.”

“Since the first day of his presidential campaign and through his first year in office,” they continued, “President Trump has targeted immigrants: vilifying them and attempting to exclude them from the country.”

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California and the Trump administration are at war, as Brown asserted recently.

It’s unprecedented. Relations between Sacramento and Washington are at an all-time low. Destructive political polarization is a reason, but not the only one.

This war is unlikely to end until Trump leaves the White House.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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