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Critics of a request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census fear it will reduce response rates, harming accuracy and increasing the need for expensive face-to-face follow-up.

U.S. Census Bureau

Furor greets request to add citizenship question to 2020 U.S. census

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) wants the Census Bureau to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census. But that seemingly innocuous request to gather more information about the U.S. population has enraged census and civil rights advocates, who see it as part of a broader campaign by President Donald Trump and his administration to undermine the legitimacy of the decennial head count. And though the official deadline for telling Congress what’s on the census was last spring, the agency has some wriggle room to make changes.

Here’s what is at stake

Chronic underfunding for the $16 billion effort has left the Census Bureau in a precarious position as they prepare for Census Day on 1 April 2020. The budget shortfall has already forced the agency to drop two of three locations for a final test this April of dozens of systems and operations, as well as specialized exercises in Puerto Rico and tribal reservations.

Census officials are hoping that the first-ever use of the internet will reduce the number of field workers needed to chase down residents who have not replied in the initial wave of outreach. Those half-million workers, and the logistical support they require, is the largest single cost of the census. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has already predicted that the 2020 census will see a lower initial response rate than previous counts, because of growing public reluctance to answer any type of survey, increasing distrust of government, concerns about cybersecurity, and logistical problems that he blames on the previous administration.

Census advocate have denounced DOJ’s request, charging that it is intended to create another barrier. They say that many undocumented residents, already frightened by the Trump administration’s policies on immigration, will assume that their responses, although confidential, could somehow subject them to deportation. Adding the citizenship question “would destroy any chance for an accurate count, discard years of careful research, and increase costs significantly,” Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

The DOJ letter was sent on 12 December 2017 to Ron Jarmin, acting head of the Census Bureau, and was first reported by ProPublica on 29 December. The department needs the data, the letter explains, to enforce a portion of the Voting Rights Act aimed at preventing racial discrimination. Specifically, it argues that counting undocumented residents would inflate the size of the population eligible to vote and that such “vote dilution” could distort the process of drawing congressional districts in a way that could hurt minorities. (The decennial census is the basis for apportioning the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.)

A complicated history

The DOJ letter implies that placing a citizenship question on the 2020 census would simply correct a one-time blip in the agency’s tracking of the issue. But that’s not really the case.

The Census Bureau does have a 200-year history of asking residents about their origins. In 1820 people were asked whether they were “foreigners not naturalized.” In 1850 they were asked about their place of birth, and in 1900 a question was added on the year they entered the country.

But starting in 1950, those questions were moved to the long form of the census. That goes to one in six households, meaning that most residents were never asked about their origins or immigration status. And after the 2000 census, the long form was dropped from the decennial census and converted into the American Community Survey (ACS), a lengthy questionnaire that goes annually to about 3 million households.

The ACS has long been a target for many Republicans in Congress who believe that its 70-some questions are intrusive and unnecessary—and a waste of tax dollars. The DOJ letter says ACS data alone are not good enough for its efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but that the citizenship question should nevertheless be retained on the ACS.

What happens now

DOJ’s request has triggered “a well-established process [of vetting] potential new questions,” said a spokesperson for the Census Bureau in a statement. And that process goes through the Trump White House in the form of consultation with the Office of Management and Budget.

Federal rules require the Commerce secretary to notify Congress of the topics to be on the next decennial census and for ACS 3 years ahead of time, and the actual questions 2 years ahead of time. In this cycle, that meant 1 April 2017 for topics and this coming April for final wording.

But the law (Title 13 of the U.S. Code) allows the secretary to modify the questionnaire “if … new circumstances exist.” So Ross has the flexibility to follow orders from his political superiors on what will go on the 2020 census.

The impact of the decision will be felt far beyond the nation’s capital. Social scientists and businesses are major users of census data, and the allocation of some $600 billion in federal programs is tied to the head count.