The Census Will Add a Citizenship Question. What Happens Next?

The 2020 Census will include a controversial question about citizenship, an addition that has sparked fears of a widespread undercount among communities that are already difficult to reach. Wilbur Ross, the secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, announced the decision in a memo to the Department of Justice, which requested the question in December.

Critics worry that this change will prompt immigrant residents—even those in the country legally—to avoid participating in the 2020 Census, out of fear that it could expose them or their loved ones to deportation. An undercount could have dramatic political consequences, both locally and nationally: Census population figures underpin the apportioning of congressional districts and representation and determine how more than $600 billion in federal funds are divvied up every year.

Former Census Bureau director John Thompson, who resigned from his post in May and has still not yet been replaced, called the action “disappointing.” He told CityLab that he disagrees with the analysis put forward in Ross’s memo. Changes to the questionnaire are typically subject to rigorous testing, evaluation, and documentation, he says—steps skipped over in this decision. “[Ross] seems to conclude that in the absence of evidence that there would be a drop in response that it’s appropriate to ask the question,” Thompson said. “I’m of the opinion that, where we are today, there is a significant risk that there will be an undercount.”

In the memo, Ross grounded the need for a citizenship question in concerns about voting rights. The Department of Justice has argued that having data for the citizenship voting age population at the census-tract level will make it easier for the agency to prevent voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race or other protected categories.

But that argument drew quick fire from civil rights groups. “The Commerce Department claims the citizenship question is needed to help with Voting Rights Act enforcement,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “However, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has virtually come to a grinding halt.”

In a statement, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, echoed that sentiment. “The president’s support for this unnecessary, untested question is just one more example of this administration’s hostility toward immigrants and people of color,” she said.

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Kriston Capps