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Immigration 101: the 2020 Census and the Citizenship Question

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What is the census?

The census is a count of the total population of the United States as mandated by the Constitution. It is taken every ten years and conducted by the nonpartisan U.S. Census Bureau. The census counts every person regardless of age or immigration status to determine how the 435 Congressional House seats are apportioned.  

The number of U.S. House seats was capped at 435 total seats in 1929, and each House district contains roughly the same number of people, which means that states can lose or gain House seats depending on how their population has changed since the last census. Currently, each House member represents about 747,000 people as there about 327 million people in the U.S. The upcoming 2020 census will determine which states will lose seats and which will gain seats.

Why is the census important?

The United States is a representative democracy, meaning our elected members of Congress are supposed to fight for the concerns of their communities. Making sure everyone is counted helps to make sure everyone is equally represented — in the House. (The Senate is famously not proportional in how many constituents each Senator represents.)

Besides making sure Congressional seats are mostly equally distributed, the census helps determine where some $880 billion in federal dollars a year will be spent. Those federal dollars include medical assistance programs, highway planning and construction, Pell grants, social safety net spending, and more. An undercount in a state would deprive that state of the resources required to meet the actual needs of its population. These essential programs also highlight the importance of counting everyone — not just eligible voters. For example, an accurate count of five-year olds in the state helps determine allocation of money for Head Start programs. The Constitution specifically says that the census must count “every person living” in the U.S.   

Corporations also use census data to help them determine where they will locate their businesses. A grocery store chain might use the census to identify a growing population center which might benefit from a new grocery store location. Banks also use census data when determining loans for commercial and retail development.   

A brief history of the census

The first census was taken in 1790 and has been taken every ten years since. For almost all of the following century, the census counted slaves as only three-fifths of a person and completely excluded Native-Americans.

Today, the census tries to count everyone but has historically undercounted people of color and other minority groups, limiting their resources and representation.   

The census also works in constant tension between optimizing data collection and maximizing response rates. Toward this effort, questions have periodically been added and removed in an effort to collect data that would better inform policy decisions.

For most of the 20th century, the Census Bureau used two census forms. They sent a short form to about 83 percent of Americans, and a long form to about 17 percent of Americans, in an attempt to capture more in-depth data.

After the 2000 census, the government got rid of the long-form census altogether in favor of American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS is now separate from the official U.S. census and conducted every year with 2.5 percent of the population. The ACS allows the Census Bureau to collect a wide range of data — but its data is not used used for the reapportionment for Congressional seats.

Because of the ACS, the 2010 census was conducted only using the short form, and this will again be true in 2020. The forthcoming census will be the first where most forms will be digital. The Census Bureau plans to invite 80 percent of households to respond to the census online and estimates that 45 percent will fill out the digital forms. The Bureau plans to use the traditional mail and in-person efforts to follow up and reach the non-responding parts of the U.S. population.

Are noncitizens counted in the census?

Yes, everyone whose usual residence is inside the U.S. is counted no matter their immigration status. In a unanimous decision in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law that everyone, no matter their ability to vote, was to be counted for the apportionment of Congressional seats.

Federal law protects the personal information collected by the Census Bureau and they are prevented by law from sharing information with other government agencies. These laws protect individuals data from the FBI, ICE, and other government agencies. Your answers to the census cannot be used against you in any way — though knowing Donald Trump, he may try to claim otherwise.

The 2020 census is also adding seven new languages to bring the total number of optional census languages to 13.

Is there a citizenship question on the 2020 census?

As of this writing, no. The question will appear on a test run of the census this summer, but unless the the U.S. Supreme Court overrules what the lower courts have said about the Trump Administration’s added question, there will NOT be a question about citizenship on the census. The Supreme Court ruling is expected in June 2019.

What’s the deal with the Trump Administration’s citizenship question?

Even in the modern era, the census often undercounts people of color. In 2010, the census missed about 2.1 percent of black Americans and 1.5 percent of Hispanics, or some 1.5 million people. There was also an undercount of about 5 percent of American Indians who lived on reservations and nearly 2 percent of minorities who marked themselves as “some other race.”  There was a statistically similar undercount in 2000 as well.

The Census Bureau is working on outreach efforts and partnering with local government and community groups to live up to its mission to “count everyone once, only once and in the right place.” But, the Trump Administration’s ongoing efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census  has thrown that work into disarray.

From its start, the Trump Administration has pushed to add an onerous citizenship question to the 2020 census. However, no fewer than three judges have blocked their efforts and as of this writing, a citizenship question will not be asked on the 2020 census. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely make the final determination this June.

A citizenship question has not been on the census for more than 70 years and citizenship is currently efficiently tracked by the ACS. The addition of a citizenship question could have disastrous consequences, leading to an exponential undercount, throwing the entire census results into question and damaging correct funding allocations for the following decade. Emails have in fact shown that this is what the Trump Administration wanted — to scare people away from taking the census so that Democratic-leaning states and population centers would be undercounted.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder said adding the question would be “a direct attack on our representative democracy.” Opposition to a citizen question has been widespread and included fIve former census directors under both parties, 60 members of Congress, 161 Republican and Democratic mayors, 19 state attorneys general, and more than 170 civil rights organizations.

The strong opposition stems over worries that large numbers of people will not participate in the census out of fear that the information they report will be misused. Current tests of the 2020 census confirm those fears, with respondents spontaneously expressing concerns about a citizenship question on the census and asking what their information will be used for.

“There are great risks that including that question, particularly in the atmosphere that we’re in today, will result in an undercount, not just of non-citizen populations but other populations that are concerned with what could happen to them,” said John Thompson, the former head of the Census Bureau who abruptly resigned over the Trump Administration’s handling of the agency. The population Thompson mentions could include the tens of millions of people, including more than 5.9 million U.S. citizen children, who live with at least one undocumented family member.

“The concern is it will cause great fear among certain populations that this data will be used for inappropriate purposes,” Thompson said. “The Census [Bureau] has a really, really hard job to convince everyone of two things. One is why it’s important to be counted. The other message that is really, really critical is that the census is confidential. The Census [Bureau] doesn’t give the data to anyone.” As stated above, it is against federal law for the Census Bureau to share personal information with other government agencies, but convincing everyone that those laws will be respected is always a major difficulty.

In contrast to the Trump Administration’s citizenship question stunt, previous Administrations took proactive steps to ensure the immigrant community was fairly counted. As reported by Dara Lind of Vox, “the Clinton administration agreed not to conduct any immigration raids during the time the census was in the field” and “census takers put up signs saying ‘NO INS. NO FBI. NO CIA. NO IRS.’”

The Trump Administration’s shady pretext for adding a citizenship question

Because the asking of a citizenship question would be harmful and unnecessary, the Trump Administration has employed deceptive tactics to advance the question. On March 26, 2018, Wilbur Ross, who as head of the Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau, announced the 2020 census would feature the new question. He did so even after the Acting Director of the Census Bureau, Ron Jarmin, informed Ross that there were more reliable and cost-effective measures to gather citizenship information. The Census Bureau’s chief scientist, John Abowd, also warned Ross that adding a citizenship question would be “very costly” and would harm “the quality of the census count.” A focus group found that the question would likely be a “major barrier” to census participation.

Six days before Ross announced he would add the new question, he lied to Congress, claiming he was acting solely on a Department of Justice request and was not taking White House direction on the matter. But an email from Trump and the National Republican Committee revealed the truth: “the President wants the 2020 United States census to ask people whether or not they are citizens.” This email was followed by another two days after Ross announced the change, stating “President Trump has officially mandated that the 2020 United States census ask people living in America whether or not they are citizens,” in direct contradiction of what Ross told Congress the week before.  

Furthermore, emails released later in 2018 revealed that Kris Kobach — a white nationalist, anti-immigrant extremist, and close ally of Trump — had several conversations with Ross in 2017 urging him to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. In one email, Kobach clarified that he was acting “at the direction of Steve Bannon,” the White House chief strategist at the time. Additionally, Ross’ emails showed that, far from responding to a request from DOJ, Ross and his staff asked multiple agencies to make the request for the citizenship question so that Ross could claim the request had come from elsewhere. Ross eventually received a request from DOJ after receiving the support of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  

In defense to a series of lawsuits that challenged the addition of the question, Ross absurdly claimed that the question was necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Even ignoring the fact that the Trump Administration has been no fan of civil rights, the Department of Justice has never needed or requested such a question in the 53-year history of the law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions even forbade DOJ staff from meeting with Census Bureau officials to discuss more more reliable and cost effective strategies for collecting data to enforce the VRA.

In one of the lawsuits, Judge Jesse Furman found Ross had violated federal law by misleading the public about the reasons for adding the question. Furman also found that Ross repeatedly  ignored warnings from experts that adding the question could seriously damage the census data.

The citizenship question will still be asked in a test run of the census in June. But the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would take the rare step of fast-tracking the case and hear the case in April, in time for a June 2019 decision.

Check out more experts and advocates discussing the problems and pitfalls to adding the citizenship question here and here.

Other issues with the census

Advocates supporting a correct census count are furthermore concerned with the 2020 census for at least two other reasons.

One is the digital nature of this census. Since the 2020 census will be the first census to be primarily online, questions have been raised about hacking, data manipulation, and disinformation.

The other concern involves the 2020 census being seriously underfunded. In 2014, a Republican-controlled House mandated that the the 2020 census should not cost more, without adjusting for inflation, than the census in 2010.  This was considered an absurd mandate, as the Washington Post reported costs have doubled over the last two decades.   

The problem has only worsened under the Trump Administration. Trump cut the Census Bureau’s budget by 10 percent and maintained the census’ level of funding in 2018 — at a time when funding for the Census Bureau typically ramps up in preparation. Trump only proposed $3.8 billion for the Census Bureau in 2019, nearly half a billion dollars short of the estimated costs. Trump’s 2019 funding proposal was also a half a billion dollars less than what was allocated in 2009.

The Bureau has already cut important tests in the lead up to the 2020 census, including a planned Spanish-language test and new ways to more accurately count people in remote and rural areas. The Bureau even delayed testing its IT systems for 2020 because of funding concerns.

Should I fill out the census?

Yes! Everyone counts, no matter their age or their immigration status. When communities are undercounted, they become underrepresented and underserved — a reality that multiplies if one already lives in an underserved community.

It is also important to remember that the Census Bureau is forbidden by law to pass along information about someone’s immigration status onto other government agencies like ICE.  

The data collected by the 2020 census is important — it will determine Congressional representation and important funding decisions for the area where you live. Making sure everyone in your household is counted can help make sure your community gets the resources it needs.

What questions will the 2020 census ask?

The 2020 census form is not completely finalized as of this writing, but here are the outline of  questions everyone will be asked:

  • How many people are living or staying in the home on April 1, 2020?
  • Is the home owned with or without a mortgage, rented, or occupied without rent?
  • What is the name, sex, age, date of birth and race of each person in the home?
  • What is the relationship of each person to the person filling out the census for the household?

There are two other notable changes to the questions in 2020. There will now be write-in areas under the race question. And under the household relationship category, couples living together will identify their relationships as either “same-sex” or “opposite-sex.”

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court overrules what the lower courts say, households will NOT be asked about citizenship.

When does the 2020 census begin counting?

The 2020 census begins the official count on April 1, 2020, but most households can start participating in the census around mid-March 2020.

Community resources

Here’s how advocates across America have begun preparing their communities for the 2020 census:

More resources