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High Court Leaves Door Open (Barely) for 2020 Citizenship Question

THURSDAY, JUN 27, 2019

Non-Citizen Growth Highest in GOP Strongholds

A Supreme Court ruling today (June 27) that delays a decision on the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census questionnaire leaves the door open for a short-term Republican victory in the battle to maintain control over key congressional and state legislative districts, even as demographic trends indicate a loss in a longer-term war.

The nation’s highest court decided to return a challenge to the question to lower courts, which have already voiced suspicion about the Trump administration’s rationale for including the question. The White House claimed it needs to ask people about their citizenship status so it can better enforce voting rights laws; Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that its claim was inadequate but agreed to give the administration an opportunity to provide a better reason for including the question for the first time since 1950.

Compelling evidence being considered by lower courts indicates the push to include the question was based solely on a desire to shrink a significant part of the  Democratic Party’s base. A September 2018 University of California-Los Angeles study estimated that the question could result in an undercount of roughly 15 percent among Hispanics, the source of more than half of the nation's 43 million foreign-born residents and a reliable part of the Democratic Party's coalition.

The discovery of secret files on the computer of Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist who died last year, prompted a new round of litigation even as the Supreme Court considered challenges to the question. The files indicate that Republicans clearly thought including a citizenship question would give them a better chance of controlling the House of Representatives and the Electoral College because it would discourage Hispanic participation in the 2020 Census. 

“This proves what was in the  recently released material from the deceased GOP redistricting consultant Tom Hoeffler, the addition will make it possible to change the denominator for redistricting of all legislative bodies across the country, so the population of non-citizens and children can be disregarded giving added power to non-Hispanic white citizens and the Republican party, as Hoeffler showed in an until-recently released report and accompanying notes,” said Andrew Beveridge, Social Explorer co-founder and president.

If the question is included in the 2020 Census, it could spur a dramatic reshaping of congressional district boundaries that could take place as a result of the decision. For example, the 15th Congressional District in Texas — a narrow corridor that snakes from the Mexican border to the southern end of the Texas Hill Country — includes roughly 795,000 people. Only 410,000 people, however, are U.S. citizens of voting age, according to a Social Explorer analysis. A decision to include the questionnaire makes it likely that the district’s size would have to be expanded to contain a proportionate number of citizens of voting age. Such an expansion would include fewer Hispanic voters who often cast ballots for Democratic candidates, and more white suburbanites who represent a key constituency for the Republican Party.

A Maryland federal judge ruled on June 19 that a lower court decision finding the government didn’t intend to discriminate against noncitizens should be revisited in light of the Hofeller files. A federal appeals court ruled on June 26 that the lower court could use the new information to review its initial decision, paving the way for the case to wind its way back up to the Supreme Court. 

Over the short term, a citizenship question benefits Republicans by diluting minority influence in urban, Democratic strongholds and shifting power to suburban and rural districts that provide the Republican Party with its base of support. In the long term, however, a Social Explorer analysis of Census data indicates that the Trump administration’s insistence upon including a citizenship questionnaire ignores the rapid growth of the non-citizen population in places where the Republican Party garnered some of its strongest support during the 2016 election cycle.

According to a Social Explorer analysis, the non-citizen population has grown nationally by 4.3 percent since 2009 (the first year in which a five-year sample was available). The nation’s total population has grown approximately 6.5 percent during the same period. The growth in both total and non-citizen population has been far from geographically uniform, which indicates that long-term demographic trends may be politically influential in ways that haven’t been anticipated by either of the two major U.S. political parties.


Visualize and compare the percent of non-citizens on the congressional district level. Switch to state or state districts – State Legislative Districts Upper (SLDU) or State Legislative Districts Lower (SLDL), by selecting them in the geography level menu. 

District Advantages

From the standpoint of political geography, the citizenship question strikes hardest and most immediately at the next redrawing nation’s 435 congressional districts. The inclusion of the question is likely to magnify changes in district boundaries, especially those with large numbers of non-citizens, and it seems apparent that a low response rate among non-citizens could radically affect the boundaries of many Democratic Party-held congressional districts. 

Among the nation’s 25 congressional districts with the highest percentages of non-citizens, 24 are represented by Democrats. The lone Republican district, which includes the conservative Cuban-American enclave of Hialeah, Fla., is represented in the House by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a nephew of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Slightly more than one-quarter of the district’s 757,000 residents are non-citizens, according to the latest ACS data. 

More than 5.2 million non-citizens live in California, the nation’s most populous state. Nine of the 25 districts with the highest percentage of non-citizens in the U.S. are located in California, including the 34th Congressional District, a Los Angeles district represented by Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat. The 34th Congressional District includes about 211,000 non-citizens, or 29 percent of its population – the highest percentage in the nation. Because of the large number of non-citizens, the district would have to add almost 120,000 voters to be equal in population to other districts.

Congressional districts with the smallest percentage of non-citizens were primarily centered in less-Democratic, electorally crucial states in the Midwest and Rust Belt such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. Non-citizens make up 1 percent or fewer of the constituents in a dozen districts, including four in Ohio. Only 3,200 of the 703,764 people within Ohio’s 6th Congressional District, which runs along the West Virginia border, are non-citizens. The district is represented by Bill Johnson, a Republican. In the most recent presidential election, the district recorded the largest four-year swing of votes toward the Republican candidate of any in the nation. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won 55 percent of the district’s vote in his unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid; Trump took 69 percent of its votes in 2016.

State of Play

It’s difficult to determine non-citizen growth trends for congressional districts since the decennial Census sparks a flurry of redrawing boundary lines. In addition, five-year American Community Survey estimates of the non-citizen population are currently only available for the 2012-16 and 2013-17 periods. But non-citizen population growth rates at larger and smaller geographies indicate that a substantial share of the non-citizen growth is occurring within traditional Republican strongholds.

While a citizenship question that suppresses non-citizen responses would be clearly helpful to GOP congressional candidates, its benefits at the state level are less clear for Republicans. The 12 states with the highest rates of non-citizen growth between 2009 and 2017 were all won by Trump in the 2016 presidential election, including pivotal swing states such as Pennsylvania and Iowa. 

Nationwide, the non-citizen population grew faster than the total population in three dozen states. Only seven states reported losses in their non-citizen population. California, the nation’s most populous state and a reliable Democratic stronghold, saw its 2017 non-citizen population drop by almost 200,000 people, a 3.6 percent decline from 2009. Even with the drop, however, the state still has the highest percentage of non-citizens in the nation; Census data show 13.5 percent of Californians aren't U.S. citizens.


Visualize and compare the percent of non-citizens on the state level. Explore the Citizen Voting Age Population map and data analysis to learn more.

Three states had non-citizen growth rates topping 50 percent between 2009 and 2017. The percentage of non-citizens in North Dakota grew almost 89 percent; neighboring South Dakota reported a growth rate of 68 percent. The percentage of non-citizens grew 52 percent in Louisiana. All three are considered reliably Republican in most state and federal elections.

County Lines

Even though the nation’s overall growth of 6.5 percent outpaced non-citizen growth, the percentage of non-citizens grew at a faster rate in 1,680 of the nation’s 3,142 counties. The non-citizen population increased by 100 percent or more in 387 U.S. counties – roughly 12 percent of the total number of counties (and county-equivalents). Among those 387 counties, more than 92 percent favored Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Typically, triple-digit population growth rates occur among small populations. For example, non-citizens in Kenedy County, Texas – a coastal enclave about 80 miles from the Mexican border that’s represented in Congress by Filemon Vela Jr., a Democrat, and that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest – grew by 330.3 percent between 2009 and 2017, with the estimated number of non-citizens climbing from 33 to 142 people. At the same time, the county’s total population grew by 68 percent, to a total of 564 people.

The triple-digit growth of the non-citizen population, however, hasn’t been limited to small counties. Indeed, only 149 of those 387 counties had populations smaller than 10,000 people. Thirty-two of the counties with high non-citizen growth included more than 50,000 people; all but one of the 32 larger counties (Roanoke city, Va.) favored the Republican presidential nominee. The 387 counties also were geographically diverse, ranging from counties encompassing places ranging from Wilkes-Barre, Penn., to Casper, Wyo., and suburban Austin, Texas, to Bismarck, N.D.

The Supreme Court’s decision — regardless of whether it decides the question can be included —  isn’t likely to immediately affect the Republican strongholds with rapid non-citizen growth. In the short term, the inclusion of a citizenship question would provide clear political advantages for the Republican Party. The growth of the non-citizen population in the GOP heartland, however, indicates that the long-term benefits for the GOP are far from certain. 

Author: Frank Bass

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