2020 Census: The Question of Citizenship

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The national debate on border security continues to draw significant attention, particularly with Pres. Donald J. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on Feb. 15 for the sake of his southern border wall proposal. Trump’s declaration roughly coincided with the U.S. Supreme Court’s acceptance of a case on citizenship and the 2020 Census.

            The Supreme Court will consider arguments on whether the upcoming census should include questions about one’s citizenship.

            Justices will hear oral arguments on the issue during the second week of April, according to the Supreme Court.

            The case – Dept. of Commerce vs. New York – pits a coalition of states and cities against the federal government. New York leads the coalition of states, counties and cities against the Commerce Department, its secretary (Wilbur Ross) and the Census Bureau. At heart of the matter is whether a question of citizenship on the 2020 Census (or any census, for that matter) violates the U.S. Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

            “New York and its co-plaintiffs allege that adding a citizenship question will deter participation in the census and cause an undercount, undermining the accuracy of the 2020 Census and jeopardizing the funding that they receive,” the Brennan Center for Justice’s statement on the Supreme Court’s acceptance of Dept. of Commerce vs. New York stated. “The suit contends that adding a citizenship question will undermine the federal government’s constitutional obligation to conduct an ‘actual enumeration’ of the national population.”

            The coalition of states, counties and cities convinced the federal district court in New York to have the citizenship question removed from the 2020 Census. Attorneys for the federal government filed an appeal on Jan. 25 – 10 days after the federal district court ruling; the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on Feb. 15.


Decennial Census

            The United States has counted its population every 10 years since 1790. Data collected by the decennial census is used to redraw political districts and allocate federal funding.

            “The population count derived from [the decennial census] is used not only to apportion representatives among the states, but also to draw political districts and allocate power within them. And it is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal, state and local funds,” the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York stated in its finding of facts for the New York versus Commerce Department case. “Given the stakes, the interest in an accurate count is immense. Even small deviations from an accurate count can have major implications for states, localities, and the people who live in them – indeed, for the country as a whole.”

            Census data has also been used to collect certain demographic information, such as an individual’s racial or ethnic background, gender and age, the federal district court stated.

            Citizenship status was asked in each decennial census between 1820 and 1950. It was the 1960 Census where a question of citizenship was no longer asked.

            “In 1960, however, the government stopped asking a citizenship question of every respondent, and for decades thereafter the official position of the Census Bureau was that reintroducing such a question was inadvisable because it would depress the count for already ‘hard-to-count’ groups – particularly noncitizens and Hispanics – whose members would be less likely to participate in the census for fear that the data could be used against them or their loved ones,” the lower federal court stated in its issued position on the matter now moving up to the Supreme Court.

            The U.S. Constitution mandates a once-every-10-years population count. Ross, in his capacity as Commerce Secretary, decided the 2020 Census should include a question on citizenship. Ross determined inclusion of a citizenship question was necessary to honor the Department of Justice’s request for more accurate data on who is a U.S. citizen. The Department of Justice would specifically use any gathered information or data on citizenship for its enforcement of a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

            The federal government, in its petition to the Supreme Court, challenged the notion of people electing not to participate in the 2020 Census because of the citizenship question.

            “There was an insufficient empirical basis to conclude that reinstating a citizenship question would, in fact, materially affect response rates,” the federal government’s Supreme Court petition stated. “The Secretary [of Commerce] further concluded that ‘even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate [citizenship] data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns.’”

Photo Credit: U.S. Census Bureau Facebook