The Trump administration announced last night that the 2020 census will include a question on citizenship for the first time in 70 years. Experts warn that the move could depress participation by immigrants who worry that the information could be used against them. This may be a feature rather than a bug for Team Trump. Changes in response rate would have decade-long impacts on how Congressional and state legislative seats are distributed and redistricted, and how much federal money flows to various locations. Faulty data would also cause problems for the large variety of groups inside and outside the government that rely on the information.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra immediately announced that the state would file a lawsuit challenging the change, stating, “Including the question is not just a bad idea — it is illegal.”
The Trump administration claims, dubiously, that it wants the data to better enforce civil rights laws. In practice, adding a citizenship question — particularly given what the current president of the United States has had to say about undocumented people living in this country — would almost surely have a chilling effect on the response rate, badly skewing the results. Previous census directors from both parties oppose the move.
In his letter announcing the move, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wrote that “the need for accurate citizenship data … outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate.”
From earlier reporting by ProPublica, which has been tracking this story all year:
Observers said they feared adding a citizenship question would not only lower response rates, but also make the census more expensive and throw a wrench into the system with just two years to go before the 2020 count. Questions are usually carefully field-tested, a process that can take years.
“This is a recipe for sabotaging the census,” said Arturo Vargas, a member of the National Advisory Committee of the Census and the executive director of NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group. “When you start adding last-minute questions that are not tested — how will the public understand the question? How much will it suppress response rates?”
The New York Times notes that the Census Bureau is already in turmoil:
The announcement of the citizenship question comes at a troublesome time for the Census Bureau: Its top two positions have interim occupants, and it has been forced to skip two of its three trial runs for the 2020 census because of funding shortfalls. If response rates for the census are low, critics worry that the bureau may be unable to adjust the data or deploy enough census takers to low-response communities.
Here’s more from Becerra, in an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle prior to the Trump administration’s announcement:
The Trump administration is threatening to derail the integrity of the census by seeking to add a question relating to citizenship to the 2020 census questionnaire. Innocuous at first blush, its effect would be truly insidious. It would discourage noncitizens and their citizen family members from responding to the census, resulting in a less accurate population count.
Including a citizenship question on the 2020 census is not just a bad idea — it is illegal. …
The Census Bureau has a long history of working to ensure the most accurate count of the U.S. population in a nonpartisan manner, based on scientific principles. …
This request is an extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes. Since the first day of his presidential campaign and through his first year in office, President Trump has targeted immigrants: vilifying them and attempting to exclude them from the country. Think travel bans, repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, ramped up Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that tear parents away from their children. Immigrants and their loved ones understandably are, and will be, concerned about how data collected in the 2020 Census will be used.
California, with its large immigrant communities, would be disproportionately harmed by depressed participation in the 2020 census. An undercount would threaten at least one of California’s seats in the House of Representatives (and, by extension, an elector in the electoral college.) It would deprive California and its cities and counties of their fair share of billions of dollars in federal funds.
These concerns are real and they are bipartisan. The past four census directors, who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents, have all publicly voiced opposition to a citizenship question based on the certain consequence of an undercount. These concerns affect red states and blue states alike.
Other states are sure to file their own lawsuits, although not Arkansas, where Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is too busy suing California.