Disobey and Defeat the Citizenship Question

The White House’s move to interrogate our citizenship in the coming census could have far-reaching consequences. Likely, it would diminish the accuracy of the census itself and make it more expensive for taxpayers to fund. Worse still, information regarding citizenship could be used to terrorize those in our communities who already live precarious and vulnerable lives under the present administration.

For many, Trump’s Hitlerian games that now encroach on the census could not be more unwelcome. Yet, the government won’t get out of its own way on this one precisely because it is steered by a racist executive. And because filling out the census is a legal requirement for us all, the president thinks we’re simply going to participate in this latest xenophobic attack on our collective administrative state.

It is no secret that Trump and his administration have actively considered sharing census information with law enforcement officials. Yet, legally, the census is to be confidential. The Patriot Act doesn’t alter this, and laws dating back to the late 19th and mid-20th centuries secure and protect confidentiality as a vital part of the census itself. Moreover, the Department of Justice has no say as to whether census data gets shared or not. Only Congress can make changes to the law that prohibits the sharing of census data with agencies outside the Commerce Department, which facilitates the census.

By now, lawsuits have been filed to challenge the implementation of the “citizenship question.” But we needn’t hope for an outcome that upholds the laws already on the books. And we don’t need to worry about Trump potentially scoring another racist political victory here. We ourselves have the power to exact a referendum. How? If the citizenship question is on the census, we shouldn’t fill it out. Instead, let history inspire us to refuse cooperation now.

During World War II, a Swedish cartoonist depicted Danish King Christian X and his response to Danish Jews being forced to wear yellow stars under Nazi occupation. In the same newspaper cartoon, the king notes, “We’ll all have to wear yellow stars.” In reality, much more was done to save the lives of Jews living in Denmark at the time. Thousands were received by Sweden thanks to the actions of ordinary Danish people. Their defiance may not have been visibly manifest in what is now a fashion trend of lore, but it was nonetheless successful.

Our refusal to participate in a census that would enable the government to actively persecute those among us should be equally effective. Thoreau justifies such civil disobedience in his “Resistance to Civil Government,” which he published in 1849, nearly a century before the rise of Nazi Germany. “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?” he asks. “Why has every man a conscience, then?”

We all have a conscience, and a conscience may tell us to abide by the law if it is just. Conversely, if legally we are expected to fill out a census that will be used to “round-up” noncitizens, or to give the state permission to harass people already protected by the Constitution (e.g., Amendment XIV: “nor shall any State … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”), then our conscience ought to tell us such a law is unjust and morally necessary to break.

To those who would argue a blind allegiance to the law anyway, Thoreau counters, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” This same spirit of conscience should trump unjust laws today. Along with the history lessons we learn from Hitler and Nazi Germany’s legal oppression and extermination of European Jews and others, Thoreau’s message should inspire us to become, or remain, disobedient whenever, and wherever, necessary.

The census may require civil disobedience of us. It may require that we soon break the law on moral grounds. But that’s all right, says Thoreau: “Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the welldisposed are daily made the agents of injustice…” So, if the 2020 census should pretend to make us “agents of injustice” under Trump, then let us disobey the law and totally refuse participation. 

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Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.

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