A Rundown of the Citizenship Question Controversy for the 2020 Census

Whether it passes or not, this question has troubling implications for who gets a voice in the United States.
July 15, 2019
7 mins read

In the last several weeks, reports of the reinclusion of a citizenship question to the 2020 census have been the topic of national debate.

Anxiously watching the fight between the Supreme Court and the Trump administration, Americans are left perpetually speculating why Republicans are so adamant about integrating a question probing citizenship status on next year’s census.

The History Behind the Citizenship Question on the Census

The word “reinclusion” is used tentatively here. Historically, there has been a question present on previous censuses inquiring about birthplace — not a straightforward query about citizenship status — but instead a loose implication of immigration status.

The Supreme Court case filed on behalf of the Trump administration moves to add a question of the exact wording: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” If the question does get included in the 2020 census, this would be the first time in all of United States history that citizenship status is asked directly.

Since the 1820s, the census required American families to report on the status of immigrants occupying a household. However, the question mandate ceased after 1950 when the U.S. Department of Commerce determined it was yielding inaccurate data.

The demographics of the United States have changed dramatically in the last century. Contrary to the American landscape 50 years ago, immigrants currently make up a significant portion of the population and workforce. Some of the top contributors to the American economy are immigrants leading large corporations, cultivating technological advancements or working nine-to-five jobs.

Now more than ever, there are increasing cries for help from those seeking asylum.

And progressively, more immigrants are now serving in Congress where they are representing the concerns of their people and those of the American public.

All things considered, immigrant populations are prospering, and they are here to stay.

The American demographic has shifted to one largely defined by these immigrants. For this reason, it is not surprising that the inclusion of the citizenship question from years prior generated errors. Those who were not naturalized simply misreported their status as a naturalized citizen.

There is no succinct way in which the government could individually verify all census responses from all American households for accuracy without a wasteful financial expense. It is simply too costly. Naturally, the government cannot audit whether an immigrant (or anyone for that matter) is withholding naturalization status, conclusively yielding unreliable data.

For this reason, it is unclear as to why the Trump administration is arguing for the inclusion of the citizenship question in collecting population data.

Trump Administration’s Proposed Incentives to the Supreme Court

The Trump administration was initially turned down by the courts when the case was proposed. Their reasoning at the time was to ensure the Voting Rights Act would not be violated. The Supreme Court asked the administration to resubmit the case to a lower court and if the case reappeared, they would reconsider given a legitimate justification.

Immediately, the administration countered with an explanation that their intent instead was to use the citizenship data for redistricting purposes. The implication of their reasoning is that the GOP will use this data to their advantage to determine where non-citizens reside, and thus set congressional boundaries for demographics working in their favor during the election process.

Essentially, they would use the data for gerrymandering.

Is the Reason Proposed the True Incentive of the Trump Administration?

Everyday there is seemingly a new, contrived defense from the Trump administration supporting their advocacy of the citizenship question. Nevertheless, the unspoken words from them are glaringly obvious.

Following the inclusion of a citizenship question to the census, the government would then have the addresses, names, ages and occupations of undocumented immigrants. Given the brutal and degrading treatment of migrants held at border facilities inflicted under the Trump administration’s command, it is difficult to see this census proposal as anything other than what it is: an attack on the undocumented.

Repercussions of Including the Citizenship Question

As mentioned, the naturalization question asked on censuses preceding the 1950s was terminated due to misrepresented data, resulting from a refusal to answer the question correctly, if at all.

In the case that the citizenship question is included in the upcoming 2020 census, the U.S. Census Bureau will likely generate the same skewed data, ultimately rendering it useless as an accurate representation of the United States population.

Not only is this a waste of taxpayer dollars, which could be reallocated toward more pressing issues, but it would also affect congressional redistricting where undocumented immigrant populations are larger.

Additionally, misrepresenting the true population of individual states will affect the federal funding that goes toward some states’s critical needs. The funding goes toward programs such as Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program and National School Lunch Program. According to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy analysis, an undercount of just 1% equates to a funding deficit of nearly $300 million.

Experts predict the inclusion of the citizenship question will cause undercounts much more drastic than 1%, given the predicted number of people unwilling to disclose their immigration status.

Assuming these predictions hold true, states that are undercounted can expect at least $300 million lost toward programs such as healthcare and public education — a serious repercussion that harms all of the United States’ people regardless of their citizenship status.

Why Does this Matter to You?

This census dispute affects everyone, not exclusively undocumented immigrants.

In the likely case of population misrepresentation, government representation can either increase or decrease in the number of House members for a given state, depending on the state’s undocumented population. This leads to an underrepresentation of the people’s needs in these states, and a silencing of their voices in making policy decisions.

Ultimately, the census was designed in lieu of the fourteenth amendment, which addresses the rights of citizens and grants “equal protection for all.” The census was implemented to collect data and guarantee that all United States citizens receive the appropriate funding, representation, policy advocacy and consideration that grants them each the equal opportunity to prosper.

The inclusion of the citizenship question may revoke the very basis for the United States as a land of better opportunities and the land of equality. But the land of equality might soon be no more, leaving desolate remains of the American Dream.

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Update: As of July 11, 2019, the Trump Administration has surrendered their plan of including the citizenship question on the 2020 census, marking another step forward in the immigrants’ fight for equality.

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