How to break a Census


June 8, 2018

Editor’s note: The following blog post is authored by CHN intern Paige Brigham, a rising senior at Allegheny College.

The House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing Friday about the decision to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 Census. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross recently announced his decision, acting upon the request of the Department of Justice. Despite the fact that no question on citizenship has been asked of everyone through the decennial census since 1950, DOJ rationalized the necessity of the question under the guise of enforcement of Section II of the Voting Rights Act.  But the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 to  protect the voting rights of minorities, has never relied on the decennial count of all people – enforcement has successfully relied on surveys of population samples. Opponents see this as nothing but a smokescreen to shield attempts to instill fear among the immigrant community.

Numerous civil and human rights and other groups have voiced concerns, including the ACLU, which has filed a lawsuit under the claim that the question “intentionally discriminates against immigrants and thwarts the constitutional mandate to accurately count the U.S. population.” Opponents of the citizenship status question fear that it will lower the response rate of members of immigrant groups – many of whom already feel alienated by the Trump Administration and fear that answering the question will result in retribution, even for those who are in the U.S. legally. Opponents also note that if fewer people respond to the Census, it will result in an inaccurate count.

Immigrants account for 13.4% of the population, and the lack of immigrant responsiveness would have profound effects on the 2020 Census. The George Washington Institute of Public Policy reports an undercount in the Census results in an estimated loss of $1,091 per uncounted person on average. In other words, those relying on already-underfunded federal assistance programs, such as CHIP, Medicaid, and SNAP, would suffer.  In addition, the 2010 Census undercounted children and communities of color, and this would be expected to worsen with the inclusion of a citizenship question.

Advocates of the citizenship question claim there is not enough evidence to support the claim that it would decrease responsiveness.  However, their adherence to scientific evidence appears to exist only when serving their own interests. Former Director of the Census Bureau Dr. Steve Murdock testified that implementation of the citizenship question without adequate testing and analysis will affect the accuracy and success of the Census, putting all communities at risk. Testing has yet to occur and with less than two years until the Census, Murdock strongly doubts enough time is left to complete the rigorous testing necessary. (Some preliminary research collected by the Census Bureau itself has provided evidence that residents are fearful of responding to government surveys because of the current anti-immigrant climate. Despite these findings, Secretary Ross has claimed that the burden of proof is on opponents of the citizenship question to show its harm, without recognizing the responsibility of the Census Bureau to test any new question thoroughly.)

To make matters worse for civil rights proponents and immigrant groups, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has brought a lawsuit against the Census Bureau challenging the inclusion of “illegal aliens” in the official Census population count. This explicitly discriminatory lawsuit rests on the premise that non-citizens do not count as “persons” and are “diluting” the political power of Americans, a claim made at the hearing by Marshall and Rep. Karen Handel, R-Georgia. As a self-identifying constitutional originalist, Marshall’s argument rests on the original intent of the Founders to exclude non-citizens from the classification of “persons.” However, examination of this claim reveals its absurdity by the absence of citizenship or immigration questions on the Censuses overseen by the Founders from 1790 through 1810 (as Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-MD, noted during the hearing). Further, this issue has previously been addressed in the 2015 case Evenwel v. Abbott in which the Supreme Court unanimously decided states should use the total population, not just voting-eligible population, to determine legislative districts. To challenge this principle is to dehumanize immigrant populations and present profound inaccuracies in funding and political representation.

Both the addition of a citizenship question on the Census and exclusion of non-citizens from the population count run the risk of a severe undercount, more anti-discriminatory legislation, and less funding for programs based on population counts, disproportionately harming low-income communities. An undercount would not only lead to inaccurate political representation, but cause authorities to be ill-equipped to meet the needs of their true population. President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits Tim Delaney explains: “if somebody is not counted, that means that the state does not receive the resources, but that person still exists and still has needs.” The implementation of these policies have the potential to exacerbate housing, poverty, and hunger crises while reinforcing cruel and unacceptable treatment of immigrants by the current administration.

Census Bureau
census data