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Will California lose a seat in Congress after the next census? You can bet Trump hopes so

Will California lose a seat in Congress after the next census? You can bet Trump hopes so
Census Bureau workers take an oath at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. (Liz O. Baylen / MCT)

Here's a mischievous way for President Trump to get back at pesky California: Ask people in the 2020 census whether they're U.S. citizens.

Then the president can chortle if immigrants who are here illegally duck away from participating in the population count.

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That would be a laugher for Trump because without a maximum head count in California, the feds would need to spend less money in the state on grants and subsidies. Maybe $2.1 billion less each year for a decade until the next census. Total it up: $21 billion.

Even sweeter for Trump, this deep-blue state very likely would lose some political juice — specifically one U.S. House seat and, thus, one presidential electoral vote.

Noncitizens can't vote, of course, but every state resident — here legally or not — counts when congressional seats and electoral votes are apportioned.

Do I believe Trump would cynically slap a citizenship question on the census questionnaire to scare off undocumented immigrants and hurt California politically? You bet.

Trump's Justice Department, headed by Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions — who seems obsessed with illegal immigration — urged the Census Bureau last month to insert a citizenship question into the 2020 questionnaire.

The rationale: The information is needed to help enforce the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws racial discrimination in elections. The department says it wants to know how many voting-age citizens are in each congressional and legislative district. That will help it respond to any complaint from a racial group about being underrepresented in Congress or the Legislature.

Maybe that's legit. But I doubt it's the primary purpose of the Trump-Sessions request — any more than the main goal of some states' voter ID cards is to stamp out widespread ballot fraud, which doesn't exist. The main goal is to suppress minority voter turnout.

The Census Bureau hasn't announced whether it will ask people about their citizenship.

Ordinarily, there'd be nothing wrong with inquiring about it. After all, it's not a question about whether the person is here illegally. Citizenship data can help policy makers deal with the politically charged immigration dilemma.

But if I were undocumented, I sure wouldn't be reporting my citizenship status to the Trump administration, no matter how many assurances were mouthed that the information would remain confidential. Not with a wall-builder as president. And not with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency warning that it will "significantly" increase its presence in California, escalating arrests in neighborhoods.

"California better hold on tight," ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan told Fox News. "They're about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers."

Former President Obama promised so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the country illegally by their parents when they were kids, that they could sign up for his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA, and feel safe from deportation. So 800,000 did, reporting where they lived. And the next president pulled out the rug, sending them scrambling and, in many cases, fleeing their addresses.

On Wednesday, Trump said he would propose legislation offering the Dreamers legal status and, ultimately, citizenship. But that's just the latest in his series of mixed signals. You couldn't blame a wary Dreamer or any other undocumented immigrant for dodging a government question about citizenship.

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Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed spending $40 million to convince everyone to fill out the 2020 census forms.

For the first time, they'll be offered online. It could also be the first time since 1950 that the citizenship question is asked on the regular questionnaire. It has been asked periodically in much smaller survey samples.

There are an estimated 2.3 million undocumented immigrants in California. But Brown and local officials aren't just worried about immigrants not participating. It's also other hard-to-count residents such as the homeless, migrant workers, frequently moving renters and multi-family households.

Back in 1990, there was an estimated 2.7% undercount in the California census that cost the state one congressional seat. That year, however, California had been growing so rapidly that it gained seven seats.

In 2000, California picked up one congressional seat because of the final 18 people who were counted. That upped our total to 53, where it still stands. Add in the two U.S. senators and it totals 55 electoral votes, by far the nation's largest bloc.

If there's a 2.7% undercount in 2020, Brown's finance department estimates it would short California's total population by 1.1 million residents. For each person not counted, it would mean $1,950 less each year in federal money. Over a decade, that's $21 billion. It makes Brown's proposed $40 million for census promotion look like chump change.

And if that many people aren't counted, California probably will lose a congressional seat for the first time in history.

"We're an export economy," says Brown budget spokesman H.D. Palmer. "But one thing we don't want to export is congressional representation. We're going to end up on the short end of the stick if we don't get an accurate count."

The dominant theory is that Democrats would be hardest hit. Their districts would have the largest undercounts, especially in Southern California regions with large Latino populations. That presumably would cost Democrats a congressional seat. They now dominate the California delegation, 39 to 14.

And it would mean one less Democratic electoral vote nationally.

For golfer Trump, that's like a chip-in for a birdie.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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