Citizenship question on census is ill-considered
By MADHU SRIDHAR
The recent controversial decision by the Department of Commerce to add a question about U.S. citizenship to the 2020 census was requested by the Department of Justice in December 2017. The rationale offered is that the responses to this citizenship question will help monitor voter demographics and protect minority voting rights.
The goal of the U.S. Census Bureau is to secure an accurate count of the population in the country — not the total number of citizens — every 10 years. Non-citizens are an integral part of our economy and need to be included in the 2020 Census to capture the complete landscape of our great “nation of immigrants.”
If anything, asking about citizenship will deter participation especially among minority and immigrant communities amid Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at workplaces and other measures targeting immigrants specifically. Fearing deportation for themselves or their loved ones, they will be hesitant to respond to the census questionnaire.
Texas is home to the second-largest population of unauthorized immigrants in the country.
Instead of encouraging them to participate in the census, this move has the potential of driving them away. An undercount will not only deny equal representation but will also mean fewer dollars appropriated for housing, highways, hospitals, schools, assistance programs, and scores of projects and programs that are vital to the health and welfare of the population and economy.
The Census Bureau’s own expert panel, the Census Scientific Advisory Committee, denounced the decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, saying it would depress the response. Who ignores the warnings of its expert panel? This panel includes prominent demographers, economists, engineers and others.
Four former census directors warned in a 2015 legal filing that adding a question about citizenship for all households would undermine the accuracy of the count.
A coalition of 19 state attorneys general also wrote to the Commerce Department in February advising the Commerce Department to oppose the request, made by the Department of Justice, to add the question on citizenship to the 2020 decennial census questionnaire. Their conclusion was that “fair, proportionate electoral representation in our democracy depends on valid Census data. The proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census questionnaire would defeat the goal, violate the Constitution, and undermine the purpose of the Voting Rights Act that the Justice Department claims it wants to protect. Because inclusion of a citizenship question would threaten the Census Bureau’s ability to conduct its constitutionally-mandated role, and would be arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act – causing significant, direct harm to our states and residents – we urge you to reject the Justice Department’s request.”
The Department of Justice says it requested to include the
citizenship question on the census to get a better count of voting-age citizens from the census in order to enforce protections against voting discrimination under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Department of Justice has relied on estimates of U.S. citizens based on the American Community Survey of the Census Bureau. Why has no such request been made to support enforcement till now?
The census has been conducted every decade since 1790 to get a national head count. The census forms, which are targeted to all households, have not included questions about citizenship or country of birth since 1950. Instead, the government has acquired that data by surveying a smaller sample of about 3.5 million participants through the bureau’s American Community Survey. Starting in 1970, questions about citizenship were included in this long-form questionnaire but not the short form. This survey asks whether a person is a citizen, by birth or by naturalization, but does not ask about legal or illegal immigration status.
The Texas Tribune reports, “Texas is home to almost 5 million immigrants — the majority of whom are not U.S. citizens. And more than 1 million Texans who are U.S. citizens live with at least one family member who is undocumented.”
Texas has the second-largest population of unauthorized immigrants in the country. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study of Census Bureau data, about 575,000 undocumented immigrants live in Houston and 475,000 in Dallas. Imagine the consequences of a million people not counted. A switch to using eligible voters would effectively eliminate millions of Texans for the purposes of redistricting, leading to fewer urban districts and more rural ones. This would shift the balance of power away from heavily Hispanic areas where more noncitizens and children live. Underreporting will result in economic impact as well.
California has already filed a lawsuit to block the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census arguing that including the question is a violation of the United States Constitution. A multistate lawsuit is also in the works raising concerns about inaccurate count.
Even without the citizenship question, minorities have been undercounted in the national census, with undocumented immigrants and their legal relatives among the least responsive. Adding this intrusive question in today’s politically charged environment is bound to make matters worse.
Including this question on the Census undermines the rights of eligible voters and threatens a process vital to our democracy. We need to provide representation and invest in our communities equitably.