The Commerce Department announced late Monday that the 2020 census would ask people whether they were U.S. citizens, a controversial decision that civil rights groups say is unnecessary and could jeopardize the accuracy of the entire survey.
The decision comes after the Department of Justice requested in December that the 2020 census include the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
But former Justice Department officials, including Eric Holder and Vanita Gupta, the former head of the civil rights division under President Barack Obama, said such an addition was unnecessary because the Justice Department already gets data about citizenship from the census’ separate American Community Survey. The decennial census has not asked about citizenship since 1950.
“Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the VRA, and Secretary [Wilbur] Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts,” the Commerce Department said in a statement.
Advocates worry that adding a question about citizenship to the census will only make people less likely to respond to the survey during a time of growing mistrust between President Donald Trump’s administration and minority communities. Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, told HuffPost in January that officials already had trouble getting people to respond and convincing them the census would not share their information with other agencies.
In a September memo, census field researchers reported that they were seeing unusually high concerns about confidentiality from respondents, particularly those in immigrant communities. Many people were falsifying the information they provided to researchers out of concern for their own immigration status or that of someone they knew.
“This is a clear attempt to politicize the process by discouraging minority communities and immigrant communities from participating in the count.” – Kristen Clarke, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
An inaccurate census would have drastic consequences. The survey is not only used to determine how electoral boundaries are drawn, but also to determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grant money are allocated.
“This is a clear attempt to politicize the process by discouraging minority communities and immigrant communities from participating in the count,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.
“This decision comes at a time when we have seen xenophobic and anti-immigrant policy positions from this administration. This is an arbitrary and untested decision that all but guarantees that the Census will not produce a full and accurate count of the population as the constitution requires.”
The Commerce Department’s decision comes just days before the deadline to submit questions for the 2020 census. Census advocates say that adding a citizenship question is extremely risky because it is untested and because the Census Bureau, which methodically tests changes to the survey, doesn’t have a good sense of how it will affect response rates.