Why the 2020 Census Needs a Citizenship Question

The request set off a firestorm of protest from Democratic lawmakers, liberal activists and left-leaning journalists despite the fact that before the Obama administration removed citizenship: in 2010 it was part of the main Census. They are concerned that asking about citizenship would discourage illegal aliens from participating in the 2020 Census, leading to undercounts in states like California and New York, which have large numbers of illegal residents. This would reduce the number of electoral votes and congressional districts in such states.


By Jay O’ Callaghan l February 7, 2018

California Democrats who have the most to gain by counting illegal immigrants in the 2020 Census: Senator Kamala Harris, Governor Jerry Brown, and Senator Diane Feinstein

In an action which set off a major uproar from the left, the Justice Department has requested that a single simple citizenship question be added to the full 2020 Census so they can better enforce voting-rights laws and increase confidence in election results.

“In order to assess and enforce compliance with Section 2’s protection against discrimination in voting, the Department needs to be able to obtain citizen voting-age population data,” Arthur E. Gary, general counsel at the justice management division of the Justice Department, wrote in a December 12th. letter to Census Bureau Acting Director Ron Jarmin.

Citizenship has long been a part of the census since the 1850s. The Obama administration removed it for the 2010 Census along with most other questions and shifted it to the smaller, in-depth rolling survey known as the American Community Survey (ACS) when it eliminated the old long form. The ACS is filled out by only one in every 38 households every year, compared to the long form which surveyed one in six households every 10 years.

Devin M. O’Malley, a Justice Department spokesman, points out the Census Bureau reports that such data isn’t precise enough to use in redistricting, and it’s important to have the citizenship question on the main Census form that will cover all Americans.

The Census Bureau states that it asks the citizenship question in general because: “we ask about place of birth, citizenship, and year of entry to provide statistics about citizens and the foreign-born population. These statistics are essential for agencies and policy makers setting and evaluating immigration policies and laws, understanding how different immigrant groups are assimilated, and monitoring against discrimination. These statistics are also used to tailor services to accommodate cultural differences.”

In a recent Supreme Court case (Evenwel v. Abbott 2016) the legality of districting based on the count of citizens or eligible voters is unsettled after the Supreme Court declined to address it. In the Evenwel case, the plaintiffs sought to require Texas to draw its Senate districts based on citizenship rather than the present method of total population.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, four former census directors, who served under administrations of both parties, supported Texas because “the geographic areas at which such estimates are available carry large error margins because of the small sample sizes.” They concluded the ACS is “an inappropriate source of data to support a constitutional rule requiring states to create districts with equal numbers of voting age citizens.”

Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, is among the researchers who supports the request. He believes that “basically more information is always better from a researcher’s point of view…and when you look at things like apportioning and redistricting, which rely on Census data, those things are always a concern.”

The request set off a firestorm of protest from Democratic lawmakers, liberal activists and left-leaning journalists despite the fact that before the Obama administration removed citizenship: in 2010 it was part of the main Census. They are concerned that asking about citizenship would discourage illegal aliens from participating in the 2020 Census, leading to undercounts in states like California and New York, which have large numbers of illegal residents. This would reduce the number of electoral votes and congressional districts in such states.

Arguments against including the citizenship question “are weakened because citizenship was asked on Census forms throughout much of American history” according to Tony Quinn, the editor of the authoritative guide to California districts, the California Target Book.

He points out that “early in our history the Census began asking whether the individual being enumerated was born in the United States. After the Civil War, with the huge boom in European migration, the Census asked whether the person was a citizen eligible to vote. Beginning in 1880, the Census asked the place of birth not only of the enumerated person but of the parents as well.”

Quinn adds that “with the 1890 census the question was asked: are you a naturalized citizen or not. The year of immigration of a foreign-born person as well as the year of naturalization (if naturalized) was asked in the 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940 and 1950 censuses, in other words for the first half of the 20th Century.”

He also supports adding the citizenship question because: “the census asked about citizenship during the great migrations of the 19th and 20th Centuries because the government had a legitimate reason to want to know where people came from. We now have a large immigrant population, some of whom are legal and some of whom are not. Certainly, it is legitimate to want to determine who this population is.”

Questions in the 2020 Census must be decided by April, two years before the Census is conducted, and any Census questions must have the approval of Congress. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and other Census officials should endorse the Justice Department request and encourage lawmakers to add it to the 2020 Census.


Jay O’Callaghan has worked extensively with issues involving the U.S. Census Bureau including serving as a professional staff member for the House Government Reform Census Subcommittee, as a senior legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee and for two U.S. House members. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the Conservative-Online-Journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

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