Why Asking About Citizenship Status on the US Census Is a Big Deal
Census data determines how many seats states get in Congress and is key to representative democracy.
Are you a citizen? That’s the question the state of California is suing the Trump administration over.
The census is a massive data gathering project that the US government undertakes every 10 years. The data collected paints a picture of the country’s demographics and, most importantly, is used to size the population and determine the number of seats each state should have in the House of Representatives.
So why is asking about respondents’ citizenship or immigration status such a big deal?
In order to accurately count the population, every person in the US, whether or not they are a citizen, should participate in the census. But critics say that asking people about their status on the questionnaire will likely deter fearful immigrants from participating in the survey and could result in flawed population figures.
The state of California has gone so far as to call the census question unconstitutional, the Washington Post reported. They’re not alone in the accusation, at least 11 other states have indicated plans to take legal action, according to the New York Times.
“The Constitution requires us to count every person living in the United States, not every citizen,” Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin told the Associated Press, adding that he expects Massachusetts will join a lawsuit against the measure as well.
The Justice Department has defended the citizenship question — which has not been asked on census surveys for the past 70 years — by arguing that it will help the government enforce the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination among voters.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a memo that the census data “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 [to the census.]”
But experts have countered that the American Community Survey, an annual survey sent to a sample of the population, is enough to ensure the Voting Rights Act is enforced, the Atlantic reported. And many rights activists, lawmakers, and experts see the addition of the question as an anti-immigrant move.
The citizenship question on the census could discourage both legal and illegal immigrants from completing the census, meaning they will go uncounted. This could cause state populations to seem lower than they actually are, resulting in the allocation of fewer representatives and a less accurately representative democracy.
"The citizenship question is the latest attempt by President Trump to stoke the fires of anti-immigrant hostility," California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a statement. "The US Commerce Department has ignored its own protocols and years of preparation in a concerted effort to suppress a fair and accurate census count from our diverse communities.”
Critics are also concerned that question will disproportionately impact Democratic states, according to CNN, which typically have more non-citizen residents than majority-Republican states.
It’s possible that the addition of the citizenship question could cause states with high concentrations of immigrants to lose seats in Congress, dampening the voices of immigrants — who, despite not being citizens of the US, are still entitled to human rights — and the citizens of primarily Democratic states.
Whether or not the question will make it into the census survey in two years is still unknown, but when it comes to government planning and gathering data, accuracy is key.
“The census numbers provide the backbone for planning how our communities can grow and thrive in the coming decade,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “What the Trump Administration is requesting is not just alarming, it is an unconstitutional attempt to discourage an accurate census count."
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