Democrats express fury over citizenship question in US census

Lawsuits threatened as Trump administration decides to reinstate controversial question

US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross: “I have determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census is necessary to provide complete and accurate data...”. Photograph:  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross: “I have determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census is necessary to provide complete and accurate data...”. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

The Trump administration has provoked threats of lawsuits and a backlash from senior Democrats after deciding to reinstate a controversial question about citizenship status in the next US census.

The US Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, said late on Monday it would bring back the citizenship question, in defiance of warnings that doing so would deter millions of people from participating in the count.

Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney-general, said after the announcement that he would be taking legal action against the move, which he described as illegal.

Eric Holder, the former attorney-general under Barack Obama and present chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said he would also litigate to stop what he described as “a direct attack on our representative democracy”.

Critics ranging from Democratic officials to immigrant activists have warned that asking people about their citizenship would lower the response rate among immigrant and minority groups and have harmful political, economic and commercial implications by making the resulting census data inaccurate.

Any problems with the numbers in the Census, which is mandated under the US constitution, will reverberate for at least 10 years until the next big count. Census data are crucial for decision makers working on everything from the drawing of electoral boundaries to the allocation of education funding and the location of supermarkets.

The United States Conference of Mayors said in a recent letter to Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, that the citizenship question would “increase the burden on respondents, heighten privacy concerns ... and lower participation by immigrants who fear that the government will use the information to harm them and their families”.

‘Unconstitutional’

In an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle published before the commerce department’s decision, Mr Becerra said adding the citizenship question would be “an extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes.”

Democrats fear that an undercount of immigrants and minorities could dilute their electoral weight in some areas. A group of 19 Democratic attorneys-general told Mr Ross this month that including the question would be unconstitutional.

“This question will lower the response rate and undermine the accuracy of the count, leading to devastating, decade-long impacts on voting rights and the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding,” said Mr Holder.

However in a memo on the decision, Mr Ross said the department had not received evidence that the response rate would indeed suffer a material decline. The commerce department said that including the citizenship question would aid the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which seeks to protect the rights of minority voters.

“After a thorough review of the legal, program, and policy considerations, as well as numerous discussions with the Census Bureau leadership and interested stakeholders, I have determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census is necessary to provide complete and accurate data in response to the [Department of Justice] request,” said Mr Ross.

“To minimise any impact on decennial census response rates, I am directing the Census Bureau to place the citizenship question last on the decennial census form.”

President Donald Trump has made a hardline approach to unauthorised immigrants a signature feature of his administration, consistent with his own campaign pledges. Mr Trump’s rhetoric and his efforts to end an Obama-era programme that shielded unauthorised “dreamer” immigrants from deportation have increased fears among many people living in the US illegally.

Final wording

Opponents of the change to the Census worry that the administration’s aggressive rhetoric has already made immigrants less willing to respond to government surveys, and that adding a question which asks if they are US citizens will further depress their participation. Census officials in 2017 were already detecting heightened concerns among some respondents. The Census Bureau is required by law to give Congress the final wording of the 2020 census questionnaire by March 31st, or at the end of this week.

Michael Strain, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the move risked introducing “significant inaccuracy” into the census count. The questions in the census are generally benign, he said, but “asking about citizenship status, especially given the rhetoric about immigrants coming out of Washington, is something that in my view will spook people.”

The citizenship question was asked in many 20th century censuses. The commerce department said it would use the same one that is asked on the yearly American Community Survey, a much smaller sampling exercise. In his memorandum to the Census Bureau, Mr Ross wrote: “For the approximately 90 per cent of the population who are citizens, this question is no additional imposition.

He added: “For the approximately 70 per cent of non-citizens who already answer this question accurately on the ACS [American community survey], the question is no additional imposition since census responses by law may only be used anonymously and for statistical purposes.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018