In Closed Session

Thanks to the vagaries of the Grunion publication schedule, I'm writing this column before Tuesday's election results are in, and you are reading it after everyone knows who won what, and why.

So let's talk about the census.

The practice of counting all the people in the kingdom goes back to ancient times. You might recall that the Christmas story revolves around a census — Caesar Augustus had ordered that all the world (at least the Roman world) be counted, and he wanted everyone to do it in their home town.

Hence the journey to Bethlehem.

In our country, figuring out how many people there were and where they lived was high on the founding fathers' priority list. The first census was in 1790, barely a year after George Washington took office as president.

The only questions asked were about the number of people in the household — and provide a clear view of the blind racism prevalent at that time. Census takers asked how many "free white males" older and younger than 16 lived in the home, then asked how many "free white females" (no age requirement).

There was another question — how many other "free persons" — and finally how many slaves. No race was required.

Today's census is far more complex and attempts to find out far more than the basic how many people live where. Social scientists and, admittedly, journalists love to dig into the many nuances of demographics the modern census provides.

The census still is used to decide how many representatives an area is allowed at the state or national governmental bodies, and it also is used to help draw district boundaries for those representative. But there's so much more.

Race will indeed be part of the 2020 census, with a fairly lengthy list of options for census takers to check. There also are income and other questions of varying degrees of intrusiveness. All of which makes those leery of government motives or simply uncomfortable about giving out personal information less than willing to comply with the request to fill out a census form.

And — you know where this is going don't you — it's possible we'll make it a little harder come 2020. 

The current administration has asked that the next census include a question asking whether those being counted are U.S. citizens, and at least so far, the Census Bureau has complied. However, the question is the subject of several court cases, including one currently underway in New York. Court watchers say it's likely the question will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

So why all the hubbub? The question seems pretty straight forward, and it makes some sense to want to know how many people hold U.S. citizenship.

Except that question also sounds like a trap to the people who are here without the proper documentation. And that trap might end with a deportation order — a pretty good reason to not answer census questions in most people's minds.

FYI, you can be a non-citizen and be totally legal and comfortable in this country. It requires a Green Card or other documentation, though.

The folks of concern are those who don't have any documentation — they are undocumented. Some would call them illegal immigrants.

It's likely most of those immigrants will dodge the census if it asks whether they are citizens or not. No reason to tell ICE where to pick them up, right?

But some states, including California, are pretty desperate to make sure those same people are counted. That's because we're talking big bucks here.

Many federal financing programs — most notably the Housing and Urban Development block grants — are based on population numbers. More people means more money in a number of ways. That's a pretty simple equation, right?

But if someone could find a way to lower that population number, that would mean less money for the area in question, right? Would someone have the desire and ability to do something like that? You answer.

An argument can be, and often is, made that government money should be spent only on citizens. However, the people in the trenches working to alleviate poverty, homelessness and more will tell you it doesn't matter much if someone's a citizen or not if they're starving right in front of you.

The various courts are aware the clock is ticking and a direction must be settled on soon. It is much more important than one question, more or less.

Do we really have to go back to Bethlehem?

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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