Liberals Object to Inclusion of Citizenship Question on 2020 Census

By Susan Jones | March 27, 2018 | 6:42am EDT
A citizenship question appears on the current American Community Survey produced by the Census Bureau.

( - Expect a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

"After a thorough review of the legal, program, and policy considerations, as well as numerous discussions with the Census Bureau leadership and interested stakeholders, I have determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census is necessary to provide complete and accurate data," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced on Monday.

"To minimize any impact on decennial census response rates, I am directing the Census Bureau to place the citizenship question last on the decennial census form," he said in an eight-page memo outlining the arguments and options surrounding a citizenship question.

Ross said he took a "hard look" at including a citizenship question after the Justice Department, last December, requested that it be done.

The goal of the constitutionally mandated census -- done every ten years -- is to get the most complete and accurate data on how manypeople  in this country. The data is used to apportion congressional seats, allocate federal funds, and enforce voting rights laws.

But as with everything in Washington, the decision to include a citizenship question is stirring partisan fervor.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he is suing the Trump administration to block the citizenship question. "It would discourage noncitizens and their citizen family members from responding to the census, resulting in a less accurate population count," Becerra wrote in an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Becerra noted that California, "with its large immigrant communities, would be disproportionately harmed by depressed participation in the 2020 Census. He said inclusion of the citizenship question "is an extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes."

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, now the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), said his group will sue to stop the Trump administration from including the citizenship question, which he called a "direct attack on our representative democracy."

"This question will lower the response rate and undermine the accuracy of the count, leading to devastating, decade-long impacts on voting rights and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding," Holder said. He said the decision is "motivated purely by politics."

Commerce Secretary Ross, in his memo, noted that prior decennial census surveys asked for information on citizenship until the 1950s. In the 2000 decennial census, the long-form survey, sent to one in six households, included a citizenship question; the more widely distributed short-form did not.  However, current Census Bureau surveys of sample populations (the American Community Survey) continue to ask citizenship questions to this day.

Ross conceded that a "significantly" lower response rate by non-citizens could reduce the accuracy of the decennial census and increase costs for the Census Bureau to follow up on non-responders. "However," he said, "neither the Census Bureau nor the concerned stakeholders could document that the response rate would in fact decline materially."

Ross also noted that the decision to include a citizenship question on a national census is "not uncommon." He said the United Nations "recommends that its member countries ask questions about a person's country of birth and country of citizenship. And he noted that other major democracies ask about citizenship on census forms, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Ross concluded:

The Department of Commerce is not able to determine definitively how inclusion of a citizenship question on the decennial census will impact responsiveness. However, even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns. Completing and returning decennial census questionnaires is required by Federal law, those responses are protected by law, and inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census will provide more complete information for those who respond. The citizenship data provided to DOJ will be more accurate with the question than without it, which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond.

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