What you need to know
Every 10 years, the federal government conducts a census to count all people in the United States. Everyone should be counted without exception — adults and children, citizens and noncitizens alike.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced that it would include a citizenship question on the decennial census for the first time in 70 years. The question was added despite unanimous opposition from experts warning that it will intimidate immigrants and communities of color and will drive down participation. By the administration’s own estimate, the question could result in an undercount of 6.5 million people.
The entire purpose of the census survey, as required by the Constitution, is to get an accurate headcount of all “persons” living in the U.S., regardless of legal status. So why is the administration charging ahead with a question that it has already conceded will undercount millions?
Simply put, the administration doesn’t want certain people to count. The ACLU has sued the Trump administration to stop this plan, which intentionally discriminates against immigrant communities of color and violates the constitutional mandate to count the U.S. population accurately. On Jan. 15, a federal court blocked the question from appearing on the 2020 census, finding that it constitutes an “egregious” violation of federal law. Judge Furman concluded that if the Trump administration got its way and a citizenship question was put on the census, “hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people will go uncounted.”
The Trump administration is appealing the ruling and the Supreme Court will hear arguments on April 23, 2019.
The Census Cover-Up
Adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census will significantly reduce participation by immigrant communities, stunting their growing political influence and depriving them of economic benefits. This includes both noncitizens and U.S. citizens, many of whom may fear that participating will expose their noncitizen family members to repercussions.
This is not an unintended effect. Documents uncovered in our lawsuit against the Trump administration have revealed that attacking immigrant communities is, in fact, the administration’s goal and that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross lied to Congress in an attempt to cover up this fact.
Who’s Harmed by an Undercount?
The census count is used to apportion representation in Congress and in drawing congressional and state legislative districts. Apportionment is based on the number of people who live *in* a district, regardless of their legal status.
If the citizenship question is part of the survey and there is a sizable undercount, states with large immigrant populations could very well lose political representation in Congress.
An undercount would also shift power away from urban areas — since about 61 percent of undocumented immigrants live in just 20 U.S. cities — and toward rural areas, which already have disproportionate political power as a result of the Senate and the Electoral College.
Depressing census response rates in already underrepresented communities will allow politicians to draw even more skewed legislative districts and further dilute the political power of these communities.
How Does an Undercount Affect Allocation of Public Funds?
The federal government will use 2020 Census data to decide how to allocate $900 billion in funding for social service, health, and education programs. This money goes to everything from Medicaid to school-lunch programs to veterans’ assistance.
If the citizenship question results in a sizable undercount, states with large immigrant populations could lose funding for programs they need.
Opposition Over Time
The push to ask about citizenship on the census is not new. However, past attempts have been rejected because virtually all experts believe that adding such a question would derail the entire premise of the census.
The Trump administration decided to do it anyway.
2017 – Census Bureau research shows Trump is already deterring participation
In September 2017, the Census Bureau released a report on how people in already hard-to-count communities may be intimidated in the current political environment from responding to the decennial census. The research was prompted by a “recent increase in respondents spontaneously expressing concerns to researchers and field staff about confidentiality and data access relating to immigration.” Participants in focus groups specifically talked about Trump’s anti-immigrant policies like the Muslim ban and his ramp up of deportations as reasons they would fear participating in the census.
2015 – Four former Census Bureau directors speak out
In 2015, the Supreme Court heard Evenwel v. Abbott, a case in which plaintiffs argued that state legislative lines should be tied to the number of eligible voters, rather than total population counts. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states can count all residents in drawing election districts. Four former Census Bureau directors submitted a friend-of-the-court brief saying, “a [person-by-person] citizenship inquiry would invariably lead to a lower response rate to the Census in general,” and it would “seriously frustrate the Census Bureau’s ability to conduct the only count the Constitution expressly requires: determining the whole number of persons in each state in order to apportion House seats among the states.”
2005 - Census Bureau testifies against inclusion of citizenship question
At a 2005 Congressional hearing on apportionment and citizenship, Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt testified that adding a citizenship question would reduce response rates by noncitizens and the accuracy of counts for both citizens and noncitizens would be reduced if the question was included.
1985 – Census Bureau opposes adding inquiries into immigration status
Census Bureau Director John Keane testified before Congress that asking about citizenship or legal status could cause the Census Bureau to be “perceived as an enforcement agency” and that doing so would have “a major effect on census coverage.”
He also told Congress that the Census Bureau believed that the addition of a citizenship question would cause immigrants and legal residents to “misunderstand or mistrust the census and fail or refuse to respond.”
1980 – Census Bureau defends decision to not collect citizenship information in court
In 1980, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a far-right anti-immigrant group, sued the Census Bureau in an attempt to force them to collect citizenship information on the 1980 census. In its briefing the Census Bureau wrote, “Any effort to ascertain citizenship will inevitably jeopardize the overall accuracy of the population count. . . . Questions as to citizenship are sensitive in minority communities and would inevitably trigger hostility, resentment and refusal to cooperate.”