The Constitution requires the federal government to conduct a count of all of the people living in the United States every 10 years.
The census determines each state’s number of federal representatives and the amount of money states and localities receive for infrastructure, health care, social safety nets and other federal programs. It also influences where district lines are drawn for federal representation.
The census has undercounted marginalized groups since it began. The Constitution outlines that: “Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned … according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.”
Unfortunately, this pattern of willful exclusion of marginalized communities from the census has continued, perpetuating underservice and underrepresentation in our federal government - and that pattern isn’t likely to change soon.
The next census will be conducted in 2020, in the midst of a contentious political environment by an administration that routinely undervalues and demonizes minorities. But the census’s impacts will last long beyond when Donald Trump’s presidency ends.
Last year, the Trump administration announced that the 2020 census would ask every household to record which family members are U.S. citizens. Within hours, a lawsuit was filed over the decision. Eighteen states, 10 cities, four counties, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are currently engaged in a lawsuit against the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce over the proposed question.
The Supreme Court began hearing arguments earlier this week and will decide the case by late June. According to NBC News, “both the government and the challengers agree that adding the question would reduce the census response rate, especially in immigrant communities.”
The administration claims that the citizenship question will provide more information about who is in the United States, that it’s simply reinstating a question that’s been part of every census except in 2010, and that the census’s results wouldn’t be used against respondents.
But we’ve seen evidence already that federal agencies will share information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has escalated its efforts under Trump. ICE increasingly arrests and detains immigrants when they appear for other unrelated legal proceedings - establishing a precedent for fears of exploitation and entrapment among the immigrant community.
In 1820, the first citizenship question was introduced in the census. NPR’s Hansi Lo Wang and Renee Klahr went through 200 years of census data and found in the original iteration of the citizenship question, “Heads of household were asked how many foreign-born people ‘not naturalized’ were in their homes.”
Various versions of that question were asked of every household on 10 censuses between 1820 and 1950. After 1950, a variant of the citizenship question was asked on only four censuses and to only a fraction of the households surveyed.
The reintroduction of the citizenship question has political - not academic - origins.
In legal proceedings, statistical data experts blasted the administration’s assertion that the citizenship question would not harm the count, pointing to the Census Bureau’s own research, which proves that asking about an individual’s citizenship status discourages participation among noncitizens and Latinos.
A Harvard study found that “[t]he Trump administration’s proposal to ask a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. census could lead to an undercount of some 4.2 million Hispanics, costing their communities federal aid and political representation.”
Adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census form will serve no useful purpose. Instead, it will trigger mistrust, depress response rates, and fuel partisan gerrymandering that will further disenfranchise minority voters.
We urged the U.S. Department of Commerce to drop the proposal and contacted members of Congress asking them to oppose the proposal, which was created in the “atmosphere of extreme fear in immigrant communities” stemming from the Trump administration’s aggressive enforcement actions and Trump’s own incendiary words about immigrants.
“Many families in immigrant communities fear being targeted by a government willing to tear apart families and cage the children of asylum seekers,” we told the Department of Commerce. “In this context, a citizenship question will chill response rates, particularly among communities — such as low-income rural and urban families, people of color, and immigrant families — that are already at greater risk of being undercounted.”
The Supreme Court is set to release a decision by the end of June, and the Census Bureau has prepared two versions of the census for when that decision comes - one with the citizenship question, one without.
One version would fulfill a constitutional obligation, the other would neglect that duty.
An accurate census does not include a citizenship question.
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