Census plan to ask citizenship status on 2020 form sparks backlash

Testing on the 2020 Census started two weeks ago in Providence, Rhode Island. The bureau’s plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 form has upset advocates, who fear it will suppress responses in minority communities, costing them government funding and congressional representation. (Photo courtesy U.S. Census Bureau)

WASHINGTON – For the first time in 70 years, Americans will be asked to report their citizenship status when they fill out their 2020 Census forms, a change that has angered immigrant advocates who fear it will harm minority representation.

Critics said the change, announced by the Commerce Department Monday night, will lead to a fewer responses, causing “catastrophic circumstances” for minority communities whose participation in the decennial census helps determine congressional representation and allocation of federal funds.

“The Constitution calls for persons. Persons are individuals that live in your community,” said Mesa Vice Mayor David Luna, at a recent National League of Cities forum on the Census question. “What we’re afraid of is that if a person is required to put whether he or she is a citizen that may hamper the process and the collection of the data necessary.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acknowledged the potential impact, but said in a statement Monday on the change that “the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower
response rate.”

Supporters of the move say it’s essential to get as much data as possible, including citizenship, in the Census. The change is in response to a request from the Justice Department, which said it wants block-level data on the voting-age population to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said adding the citizenship question is “essential” on issues pertinent to voting rights.

“The best data for remedying violations of the Voting Rights Act is citizenship population data,” von Spakovsky said.

The Constitution mandates a census every 10 years that counts all persons in the United States, citizen and noncitizen, to determine the number of seats each state gets in Congress. But the results are also used by state and federal governments to allocate billions of dollars of funding for health care, education, law enforcement, infrastructure and other programs.

The citizenship question was last included on the 1950 Census, and it is still regularly part of the American Community Survey, a more frequent survey by the Census that asks more-detailed questions from residents in small number of communities.

Critics questioned why citizenship needs to be included on the decennial census if it’s already part of the ACS. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund, said adding the question to the 2020 Census is “redundant” and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

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“The fact that this question is completely untested, and its consequences of being added to the 100 percent decennial questionnaire are unknown, it is quite likely that the data that will be produced by the 2020 Census will not be as high quality,” Vargas said.

But von Spakovsky said that the ACS as it stands now is insufficient at providing citizenship data, and that adding the question to the decennial census is the best course of action. He disagrees that adding it will harm the accuracy of the 2020 Census.

“If it doesn’t make the ACS inaccurate, why would it make the entire census inaccurate if we add that question back to the census form?” von Spakovsky asked.

The change already faces legal challenges from a number of states. California has filed a lawsuit to stop the change and New York said it will lead a multistate lawsuit to “preserve a fair and accurate Census.”

Even before the change was announced, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, last week introduced the 2020 Census Improving Data and Enhanced Accuracy (IDEA) Act, which would prohibit the citizenship question.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, urged support Tuesday for the Maloney bill, which he said would keep the administration from “turning the Census into an anti-immigrant partisan weapon.”

“By discouraging immigrant families from participating in the Census, they will remain underrepresented and their communities will remain underfunded,” Grijalva said in a prepared statement.

Vargas accused Ross of announcing the change “at the 11th hour” – the deadline to finalize the 2020 Census form is Saturday – and “jeopardizing the accuracy of the 2020 census and wasting millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.”

John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, joined a conference call Tuesday with Vargas and other opponents who said they will work to keep the question off the 2020 Census form.

“Let’s be clear: This question and similar policies by this administration will leave minority communities undercounted, underrepresented and under-protected,” Yang said.

Luna said an accurate count should be paramount.

“Remember, the community of Mesa or any community in Arizona is made up of many people,” he said. “So we need to ensure that we collect the right data so that when we provide the government that information, they provide the dollars that we need within our cities.”

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