Citizenship Question: Still a Challenge to an Accurate 2020 Census

by | Feb 15, 2019 | Census 2020

The Constitution requires that America’s decennial census count all persons residing in the United States, not just citizens, a clearly stated objective now at risk.

In a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs including states, cities, and civil rights organizations, New York Southern District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on Jan. 15 in their favor against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ directing the Census Bureau to ask census respondents whether they and everyone else in their household are U.S. citizens.

At issue is not only whether the question’s inclusion is legal, given administrative timelines that were missed, but whether it would depress participation, particularly among ethnic populations, thus resulting in an inaccurate count.

Jeri Green, Senior Advisor on the 2020 Census at the National Urban League, termed Ross’s action “a thinly veiled attempt to sabotage and affect congressional and Electoral College representation by deliberately undercounting vulnerable populations and erasing them from the census count.”

Green participated as a panelist in a media conference call co-sponsored Jan. 30 by the Leadership Conference Education Fund and Ethnic Media Services.

Census data determine congressional reapportionment and are the basis for how hundreds of billions in federal money is distributed every year to states, counties and cities for a variety of programmatic and infrastructure needs. From schools and hospitals to social services, there is virtually no civic arena that is left unaffected by census apportioned revenue.

However, today’s political environment is often inflamed by debates over immigration and related issues such as a proposed expansion of a wall along the border with Mexico or a recently published story in the Washington Post on non-citizen voting in North Carolina — votes sometimes cast due to ignorance of, or misunderstandings about citizenship status.

Green noted that “out of roughly 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, about 620,00 are black, according to the most recent statistics by the Migration Policy Institute. But equally at risk, she pointed out, are the 4.2 million documented black immigrants who comprise a rising share of the black population in the United States.”

Like the National Urban League’s concern about the potential neglect and disempowerment of the black community by being undercounted in census data, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) shares the same perspective relative to its Latino constituents.

Angela Manso, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs, NALEO Educational Fund, cited Census Bureau findings in Providence County, R.I., that “over 78 percent of the Latinos surveyed believe that a citizenship question would make people afraid to participate in the census.”

Manso contends Secretary Ross’s insistence to include the question is “designed to erase our presence in this country and impact our growing political force.”

A newly released Pew Research Center analysis of the 2020 electorate underscores demographic shifts that will produce a greater number of eligible ethnic minority voters, especially Latinos.

John C. Yang, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a panelist on the call, argued for the elimination of the question as well. He explained that its addition would likely produce a lower turnout among Asian Americans, this country’s fastest growing ethnic cohort. A significant percentage of that growth is due to recent immigrants.

“One in four Asians in the United States,” Yang said, “are new Americans and have never participated in the Census, and a citizenship question endangers an accurate count.”

Panelists urged Congress to “step in” to resolve the contention over the citizenship question by introducing legislation that would bar its usage. There are concerns that even with Judge Furman’s ruling in New York, a potentially favorable outcome for opponents of the question’s inclusion in a Maryland lawsuit, and yet a third trial in California that is anticipated to produce a ruling similar to New York’s, the Supreme Court could decide to hear the case on the government’s expedited appeal.

Though presumably adherence to precedents would prevail at the country’s highest court, a new law specifically excluding the citizen question could put issue to rest and beyond the reach of Secretary Ross or others who may seek to exploit its use to accomplish a political agenda.

There already is a bill in House of Representatives and it is anticipated that Sen. Bob Menendez, D- N.J., will craft a Senate bill as well that would bar the question’s use. Yet, while the panelists argued that a fair and accurate census should be a bi-partisan issue — as an inaccurate count reduces revenue for Americans in need everywhere, not to mention violates the principle of equality under law — attempting to enact legislation brings its own risks.

For one, not only would both the Senate and the House have to pass legislation, the president would have to sign it into law. Should he choose to veto it, it would take 67 senators to override.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House subcommittee charged with overseeing the census, said the most likely route to pass legislation addressing the citizenship question would be to attach it to a “must-pass bill,” like an appropriations bill.

Meanwhile, with court cases still pending and the final status of the question still unresolved, key deadlines are at risk. A roughly half-million-dollar contract for public education has yet to be finalized. There may be a delay in printing the final census forms this summer. Green noted that Census Bureau enumerators, who will conduct door-to-door interviews when there’s been no response to mailed surveys, have yet to be hired and trained. Green said that to hire the 500,000 the Census Bureau expects to need requires screening 2.5 million applicants. For those enumerators to be coached in how to ask people their citizenship status is already a delicate situation. Not even knowing if that will be necessary only complicates the training process.

Green also pointed out that, given the 2020 census will be the first to utilize the Internet as medium of response, the consequences of the digital divide and lack of Internet access may negatively affect response rates from already hard-to-count communities, typically low-income and rural, and ones where the number of present in a household is often unreported.

Beth Lynk, Census Counts Campaign Director, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, speaking of the New York ruling said that “each of the dozens of defects the judge found” would provide a sufficient basis to exclude the question. Especially relevant to traditionally hard to count populations, Lynk cited a quote from Judge Furman’s 277page decision: “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people would go uncounted if the citizenship question is included.”

Khalil Abdullah

Khalil Abdullah


Khalil Abdullah is a for regular contributor for Ethnic Media Services. He has served in a number of senior administrative roles with New America Media, the Beat Within, and the Washington Afro-American Newspaper, among others.