The 2020 Census Citizenship Question

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By Jack Gil

In March 2018, the US Census Bureau announced its plan to incorporate a question asking respondents whether they are US citizens in the 2020 Census. This would supply block-level data on the citizen and non-citizen voting age populations in the country. However, many immigrants and activists oppose this decision as “the question instills fear in immigrant communities and will lead to an undercount of the national population,” according to Miriam Valverde (Politifact).

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (head of the Commerce Department, which oversees the decennial Census) declared on March 26 that the question will be added by a request from the Justice Department, which claims that the data is crucial for its enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This section prohibits discriminatory voting procedures.

Typically, the Census Bureau used data regarding citizenship through the American Community Survey (ACS), which collects information on about 3.5 million American households annually. About 1 in 38 households across the country are required to complete the survey every year. Many nonpartisan analysts within the Census Bureau contest with the Trump administration’s claim that collecting citizenship data through the Census would be more effective, and in fact assert that “compiling existing government records about people’s citizenship status […] would not only produce more accurate information but also cost less money,” (Hansi Lo Wang, NPR).

The importance of the Census, and its accuracy, cannot be understated. It is ordained by the United States Constitution, requiring the federal government to conduct a national survey of the whole population within the country every ten years in order to gain official information regarding state and local population growth. The federal government uses the data to allocate congressional seats in the House of Representatives, Electoral College votes, and an estimated $800 billion in annual federal funding that state and local leaders use to provide public services such as housing, education, and healthcare. Thus, an undercount could have serious repercussions for the country. It is for this reason that Democrats and other immigrant rights activists have denounced the Bureau’s decision. Due to the Trump administration’s vocal anti-immigrant rhetoric, many opponents argue that “asking about citizenship status in the current political climate could discourage noncitizens, including immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, from taking part in [the Census]” (Hansi Lo Wang, NPR). “If immigrants are discouraged from answering the Census, then the government will not be able to make an accurate headcount of the total population, producing inaccurate data.”  This may result in an unfair shift in federal funding allocation to rural states with fewer immigrants, and could take away congressional seats from states with many immigrants like California, Texas, and Florida.

The present administration is now facing up to six lawsuits from across the country over this citizenship question. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit against the administration, alleging the question violates the Constitution, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman plans to direct a multi-state lawsuit to oppose this new addition to the Census. For now, the New York-based lawsuit over the citizenship question is scheduled to be heard on November 5. In late October, a US district judge – as well as the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals – rejected the department of justice attempts to delay the proceedings.


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