Citizenship Question on 2020 Census: Concerns are not “Overblown”


In March of 2018, the United States Census Bureau announced that the 2020 census would reinstate the question of citizenship as per the recommendation of the Department of Justice. Previously used on the 2000 census, but removed from the 2010 census, this question would require all residents of the U.S. to admit their legal status or be fined for an incomplete entry.

The Southern District Court of New York appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds of discrimination and violation of the Enumeration Clause of the Constitution. Reinstating this question would discourage millions of undocumented immigrants and green card holders from filling out the census in fear of persecution from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Failing to account for these demographics would violate Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, which mandates an “actual enumeration” of all persons living within the U.S.

Current Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross echoes the same defense made by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, stating that the “concerns over [the census] are overblown” and that the citizenship question would reinforce the Voting Rights Act. Ross claims that citizenship data would reduce incidents of voter fraud that detract from the electoral representation of Black voters. These Republicans have argued that this “one simple question” would not create a significant statistical difference, as the percentage of immigrant communities that were undercounted between the 2000 and 2010 census was only one percent.

Ross and Sessions may be accurate that the percentage decrease for immigrants will be marginal, but even the slightest undercount can have tremendous adverse effects on political representation for these communities. The census does not determine directly who can vote but does alter the weight of a vote. Population changes recorded by the census are used to redraw Congressional and state legislative districts. If the census renders an immigrant population invisible on the map, these communities lose congressional seats and political power to more districts that appear more densely populated as per the census.

Trump’s administration has argued that undocumented immigrants should not be represented in the electorate because they are not permitted to vote by law. However, U.S. Code § 2a states that the reapportionment of representatives must be reflective of all residents of the United States, regardless of citizenship status. The Enumeration Clause of the constitution requires the Census Bureau to account for citizens and non-citizens in order to determine the distribution of federal funds. A decline in a district’s population results in a decreased allocation of federal funds for their public schools, infrastructure, and constituent services.   

The standard of living and political visibility of documented immigrants would be affected as well. The Census Bureau reported in 2017 that incomplete questionnaires were largely attributed to “confidentiality and data-sharing concerns among immigrants or those who live with immigrants.” Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian, and Arabic citizens expressed concerns of sharing detailed information about their household during a political climate of rapidly-changing, harsh immigration policy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) disputed Ross’s defense that the citizenship question would better enforce the Voting Rights Act, by shedding light on the 3.5 million immigrants of color from the African diaspora who would also be deterred by citizenship question.

While U.S. Code Title 13 explicitly states that data collected by the Census Bureau remains confidential, marginalized populations are often distrustful of this historically discriminative institution. During World War II, the Census Bureau disclosed the personal information of Japanese American citizens to the Secret Service in order to locate them and force them into internment camps. The Bureau’s actions were not inherently illegal; they found a loophole by divulging the population numbers of Japanese Americans as a whole rather than on an individual basis. If an undocumented immigrant skips the citizenship question, the Census Bureau is permitted to call or visit them in person, exposing them to the possibility of further investigation and intrusion.

The Census serves as the basis for public policy decision making. One single question has the power to dramatically alter the political representation for an entire district: the Census Bureau projects the citizenship question would reduce responses by 5.8% among non-citizen households, resulting in a reduced representation of approximately 6.5 million people. Regardless of the current administration’s stance on illegal immigration, it is the Census Bureau’s constitutionally mandated job to revise the census to be more accurate and cost-effective in collecting responses. Conducting the Census is expensive and the cost falls on taxpayers; the Bureau estimates the 2020 census could cost $22 billion which is “simply unsustainable.” The inaccuracy caused by losing the responses of 6.5 million people is not only unconstitutional; it is also wasteful.

The administration’s defense that the citizenship question would better enforce the Voting Rights Act remains questionable considering its largest proponent, Kris Kobach, has been reprimanded for voter suppression. Kobach said himself the question is not about protecting Black voters but addressing “the problem that aliens who do not actually ‘reside’ in the United States are still counted for congressional apportionment purposes”; an admission of anti-immigration sentiments.”

The insistence on reinstating a question that forces communities who already live in fear to omit their legal status is symbolically degrading. It is a scare tactic and a reminder of their perceived subordination. Undocumented immigrants may not “reside” on paper but they are still human beings whose lives cannot simply be ignored. The concerns over the Census are not “overblown” when the citizenship question jeopardizes our democracy and devalues the quality of life for millions of underserved people.

Rachel Barkin