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Why Adding Citizenship Questions to the U.S. Census Is Such a Big Concern


By Carrie L. Davis, Director, Democracy Program

Late in the day on March 26, 2018, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced his decision to include a citizenship question in the upcoming decennial Census. There was immediate outcry from many in the democracy field. 

So what’s all the fuss about?

The Census plays a critical role in our democracy. It is the foundation for determining electoral representation, disbursement of billions of dollars in government spending at all levels of government, and its population data informs a wealth of decisions in the business, education, and social service fields.

Given the importance of an accurate Census, it is highly unwise to make policy decisions that jeopardize its accuracy. The Administration’s decision, according to advocates, does just that.

Each decennial Census goes through years of preparation, including testing of the survey questions, to ensure it is designed to maximize effectiveness. Inserting a new battery of questions on the eve of the Census does not allow necessary time for assessing impact. Ross himself, in a memo announcing the decision, acknowledged a lack of evidence about the impact of citizenship questions. Yet he dismissed concerns that the decision could deter non-citizens from participating, undermining the core mission of the Census. Ross further compounds the concerns of advocates with his disingenuous argument that he made this move to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

Furthermore, the insertion of a battery of citizenship questions at the urging of political figures who have led aggressive immigration enforcement raises significant concerns. Legal experts fear it will have a chilling effect on participation in the Census, particularly in immigrant communities and regardless of legal status.  

The context in which the decision was made also politicizes the Census, which is intended to be a politically neutral population count. A citizenship question has not been asked on the Census since 1950. It shouldn’t be asked in 2020.

In the coming days, we will join with our democracy colleagues in developing a plan to address these concerns, because we need the Census to count for ALL of us.