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Citizenship Question on Census 2020 Sparks Outcry, Legal Action

WASHINGTON (AP) — The 2020 U.S. Census will include a question about citizenship status, a move that brought swift condemnation from Democrats, who said it would intimidate immigrants and discourage them from participating. 

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Oct. 12, 2017 to discuss preparing for the 2020 Census, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. AP Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

The population count taken every 10 years is more than an academic exercise. It’s required by the Constitution and used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House as well as how federal funds are distributed to local communities. It helps communities determine where to build everything from schools and grocery stores to hospitals.

Congress delegated to the secretary of the Commerce Department the authority to determine census questions. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had until the end of March to submit the list of questions to Congress. The department said the citizenship information would help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights.

“Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts,” the department said in its announcement.

A coalition of state attorneys general urged the department last month to not add such a question, saying it could lower participation among immigrants and cause a population undercount.

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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the state will sue the Trump administration over its decision.

“We’re prepared to do what we must to protect California from a deficient Census,” he said.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat, told AP on Tuesday that he expected his state would also join in a lawsuit. He called the move by Ross an attempt to suppress the count in states such as Massachusetts that have large immigrant populations.

“The Constitution requires us to count every person living in the United States, not every citizen,” Galvin said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said on March 27 that adding such a question “will inject fear and distrust into vulnerable communities and cause traditionally undercounted communities to be even further under-represented, financially excluded and left behind.”

Democratic lawmakers had been bracing for the decision in recent months. They’ve held press conferences and made it a point to question Ross about his thinking during appearance at congressional hearings.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced legislation last week that would prohibit the commerce secretary from enacting any major operational design that had not been researched and tested for less than three years prior to the opening day of the census. The bill has nine Democratic co-sponsors, but no Republicans have signed on, demonstrating the bill’s dim prospects in the GOP-led Congress.

The reaction among voting rights advocates, a former U.S. government official and an immigration reform leader was swift. 

“Our Constitution requires a complete and accurate count of everyone living in the country, no matter her or his citizenship status,” Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a CNN story.

“The administration’s decision to add a citizenship question is at best a dramatic misstep, and at worst a politically-motivated move that will undermine a fair and accurate census. This question is a dangerous move that could lead to a serious skewing of the final census results.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under former President Barack Obama, also was critical of the move.

“The addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire is a direct attack on our representative democracy,” Holder told CNN. “…In deciding to add this question without even testing its effects, the administration is departing from decades of census policy and ignoring the warnings of census experts.”

Angelica Salas, executive director of Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said the impact would hurt people in the U.S.

“It appears the Trump Administration will make every effort, at every turn, to sow fear, distrust and division in the land,” she said in a statement. “The inclusion of a citizenship question in Census 2020 is intentionally designed to make immigrant communities invisible.”

Some Republican lawmakers hailed the decision. GOP Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas had sent a letter to the Commerce Department asking Ross to add the question.

“It is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable, given the wide ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy,” Cruz said in a press release issued by the three lawmakers. “A question on citizenship is a reasonable, commonsense addition to the census.”

The Commerce Department said that between 1820 and 1950 almost every decennial census asked a question on citizenship in some form.

Census counts are taken by mail and by workers walking neighborhoods. The Census Bureau says that the 2010 census drew a massive response, with about 74 percent of the households mailing in forms and the remaining households counted by workers in neighborhoods.


Kevin Freking of The Associated Press wrote this report. Brad Wong, news editor for Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice, contributed to it. 

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