Tribune editorial: The census is for counting people, not intimidating them

(The Salt Lake Tribune) A look at Utah's growing minority population.

The U.S. Census always has been a vehicle for doing one thing: counting people. It is not for gathering information on individuals.

Now comes a promise from the Trump administration to ask census respondents if they are U.S. citizens. The straw-man argument for asking is to get a more accurate count of how many people can vote. Voter fraud by immigrants is a frequent refrain of the anti-immigration crowd, but it’s one for which there is scant evidence.

The more likely motivation is simply to keep immigrants from answering the door, responding to mailers or otherwise letting any census worker learn anything about them, lest it make its way to someone who can cause trouble. And that includes immigrants who are here legally. Why risk it?

The result is that the equal representation promised by the U.S. Constitution is distorted. In Utah, it could mean as many as 100,000 residents will go uncounted.

Salt Lake City, which has a large share of Utah’s immigrant population, is fighting back. The city is hiring a full-time employee for nothing other than getting the city’s residents to participate in the 2020 census. This new hire will work with aid groups, churches and any other organization that interacts with immigrants to see that the forms get completed. The next census will be the first to rely primarily on online reporting, a particular challenge among households with no Internet.

So much of Salt Lake City’s funding depends on population that the position likely will pay for itself. More important, the city’s residents will be more fairly represented.

In the polarized national immigration debate, Utah has been a notable exception — a red state that welcomes its newcomers and searches for practical solutions. But that attitude is less evident among the state’s congressional delegation, who have said little if anything about adding the citizenship question.

One Utahn in Congress, Rep. Rob Bishop, has been working to increase Utah’s census count, but not among immigrants. Bishop sponsored a bill to count Americans living overseas, a change that would allow Utah to count the Mormon missionaries it sends worldwide.

“We have a chance to make a change that will help real people, and we should do it,” Bishop said when he introduced his bill in March.

If he’s really interested in making sure Utah’s population is counted, Bishop should do the math. LDS Church missionaries sent overseas from Utah are a small fraction compared with the state’s immigrant population.

The census is only for counting, and the citizenship question only makes the count less accurate. Salt Lake City officials know it, and Utah’s members of Congress should, too.