The Trump administration recently announced the 2020 census would include a last-minute question that is causing significant controversy. The question, “are you a United States citizen?” has raised considerable concern, most notably on the political left.
On Monday night, the US Census Bureau confirmed the citizenship question would be on the 2020 census. Each household in America will be asked to identify who in their home is a US citizen, and who in their home is not. Within hours of the announcement, 14 states filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an effort to block the question.
Let’s unpack the issue from both the administration’s perspective and from the perspective of those arguing against the change to the census.
The Administration’s Argument
In the wake of significant criticism, the Trump administration has justified their decision to add the citizenship question by saying it is simply a clerical question. The administration claims that the citizenship question has been included on every census except the last one, in 2010.
This claim is almost true. While a citizenship question has not been included on every census, it is also not an anomaly. The question was included on the census in 1820, 1830, 1870, from 1890-1950, and from 1980-2000. The Trump administration says they are simply reinstituting what has always been common practice regarding the US Census. They also argue that their intent is simply to get more information and that this information is valuable.
This position is not without merit. The citizenship question has historical precedent. Private research into the impact individual questions have on response to the census as a whole shows that the existence of sensitive questions on the census is less relevant than are general attitudes toward the government.
In other words, if people choose not to participate in the census, it will not be because of the citizenship question it will be the result of a general distrust of government.
Though the Trump administration argument might be primarily that the question is not that big of a deal, it is not the only argument in favor of including the question. Advocates have long understood the value of being counted. The reason the citizenship question was included in 1870, after its absence from several previous censuses, was to include the newly freed black Americans who had become “new citizens.” The question was a way to identify, count, and represent a specific, horrifyingly underserved population.
Similarly, the left has long lobbied, successfully, for the addition of questions identifying LGBTQ people in the census. Generally speaking, if a group is counted, they can be better represented. Additionally, questions about race help to identify discrimination and provide representation. So, it might be argued that citizenship questions would better serve immigrant populations.
Proponents of the question argue that there are privacy policies in place that would safeguard census respondents’ information. They argue that the chance that answers to census questions would be passed along to law enforcement, resulting in deportations, is slim to none.
Those arguments, however, do little to convince the opposition.
The Opposition’s Argument
14 states, led by California, have filed suit to stop the Census Bureau from including a citizenship question on the 2020 census. The primary argument against the question is simple: If respondents are expected to answer whether they or members of their household are not citizens, immigrants will be less likely to participate in the census. If immigrant communities do not participate in the census, they will not be counted, and the political landscape in states like California will become skewed.
Opponents of the addition point to the administration’s staunchly anti-immigrant policies, and the late addition of the question as giving rise to suspicion about its intent. In a vacuum, perhaps the question would not seem insidious, but that is hardly the case. We live in a political climate dominated by hyper-partisanship and aggressive anti-immigrant policies.
We live in a time when Latino schoolchildren are often met with cries from classmates of “go home” and “build the wall.” While the administration and proponents of the question give assurances that there are policy procedures in place that would not allow census data to be shared with immigration enforcement, immigrants, and even US-born Latinos do not trust the administration to maintain such protections.
Their concerns are not unwarranted. There is precedent of census data being used to target immigrant communities. During World War II, census data was abused to identify Japanese Americans who were later detained in internment camps. There were safeguards put in place after Japanese internment to prevent such an occurrence, but belief in such safeguards once again boils down to trust in government. Thus, opponents argue, the census is likely to significantly undercount Latino populations.
The results of serious underreporting of immigrant populations on the census will be felt for a decade. Communities where there are large populations of immigrants will be impacted legislatively. That means largely blue states. The fact that the administration is currently at war with the state of California, suing the state for its sanctuary state status, adds increased suspicion for the intent behind the citizenship question.
The President might say he is not out to get immigrants with the addition of this question, and there might even be legitimate justifications for the question, but the truth remains, this President’s vehement anti-immigrant policies make any justification outside of persecution implausible.