Counting On Census Controversy

How high can you count? If you are an enumerator (fancy schmanzy way of saying census taker) you better be able to count into the multi-millions since the current U.S. population is estimated to be around 329,000,000. What enumerators may or may not be able to find out in the upcoming 2020 census is how many citizens and non-citizens dwell in the U.S. Yes, sir;  count on census controversy on that question.

A census is nothing new. Why the Romans took one back in Biblical times when Joseph and his pregnant fiancée, Mary, had to go to Bethlehem for a head count. Unfortunately, the gospels provide no information about what questions the Roman enumerators asked. Perhaps it was a hot-button topic  whether the occupying Romans could ask if someone was a Roman citizen.

Flash forward to more modern times. Census taking was conducted in this country prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution itself recognized the need for a population count because the legislative framework called for was congressional districts based on the number of people in an area. Article 1, Section 2 called for an “Enumeration” (read “census”) every ten years; therefore, a decennial census is constitutionally mandated.

Of key importance is that the word “citizen” is not used when the Constitution refers to the enumeration of people for determining congressional districts. The U.S. Census is a population census aiming to get a bottom line tally of the actual number of people living in this country. But while all residents are people, not all residents are citizens. This distinction is where the controversy arises.

The Census Bureau, which falls under the Commerce Department, is gearing up for the 2020 census. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has proposed adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census: “Is this person a citizen of the U.S.?”. This question, the last one to be asked on the census form, will ask all those living in the United States if they are citizens.

While the question may appear to be simple, the possible answers are not simply “yes” or “no.” One of five possible answers can be selected. One is negative, i.e., not a citizen. The four “yes” answers determine if the citizen was:

  1. born in the USA (a great song title, don’t you think?);
  2. born in a U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.;
  3. born abroad to a U.S. parent or parents; or
  4. naturalized to become a citizen.

Is anyone shocked that a government form would not have merely a “yes” or “no” response? I’m not.

A firestorm of controversy has erupted over this eight word question. And when I say firestorm, I mean lawsuits, (more) political bickering, and congressional inquiries. Court cases seeking to block the asking of .this citizenship question allege Commerce Secretary Ross intended to discriminate against minorities by adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Is asking if a person is a citizen such a radical question? Well, not historically. A citizenship question was included in each U.S. census from 1890 to 1950. The question initially began to be asked during a time of high immigration to the U.S.. Moreover, the question has appeared on every American Community Survey since 2005. In addition, other countries such as Canada, Spain, and Germany ask a citizenship question on their version of a census.

Opponents of the citizenship question’s inclusion on the census argue that those who are in this country illegally would hesitate to participate in the census for fear the information given might be used against them. While this argument seems superficially appealing, it doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. In the first place, the question asked is only if one is a citizen. It does not ask if a citizen is in the country legally. The “no” answer merely means that one is not a citizen. There are any number of individuals who are in this country as non-citizen legal residents (think green card) or long-term visitors.

In addition, who will use this information against the illegal immigrants? The information gathered in a census is confidential. It is illegal to share a census response with law enforcement or immigration agencies. Courts have upheld that no agency, including the FBI, has access to census data. (That’s legal access, of course.) Moreover, the so-called “72 Year Rule” (Public Law 95-416) provides that the government cannot release personally identifiable information about an individual to any other agency of individual for 72 years after it is collected for the census. Seventy-two years from now any illegal immigrant responding to the 2020 Census could be dead or perhaps have obtained citizenship by then..

Why is an accurate population count so crucial? The census figures are used for the distribution of federal funds and to draw state and congressional legislative districts. California’s attorney general opposed the proposed question noting that if the immigrant population is undercounted, then the census would be an incomplete count.  With an estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, an undercount could have a significant impact on states with large immigrant populations. California would be one of those states, hence the Golden State’s interest in the issue.

To date three federal judges (in New York, California, and Maryland) have ruled to block the administration’s plans to include the citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The addition of the question was challenged not only as discriminating against minorities but also for being added in violation of administrative law procedures. I don’t know for sure, but I speculate that the administrative procedures are as clear and easy to understand as tax laws and procedures.

Enter the Supremes! The Commerce Department sought, and was granted, an expedited appeal by the highest court in the land. Oral arguments were presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in April, and a decision is expected to be rendered by late June. Time is a factor here as the Census Bureau is facing a June 30th deadline to finalize the census questionnaire for printing.

With a Supreme Court decision looming, it means those on both sides of the issue are counting right now, and it isn’t residents or even citizens who are being counted. Opponents and proponents of the citizenship question are counting the possible votes on the Court based on how the oral arguments went and the track records of the justices. They are also counting down the days until a decision is reached. No matter what decision is rendered by the Supreme Court, you can count on one thing. The issue will remain controversial to citizens and non-citizens alike regardless of how the Supremes rule.

Just WONDER-ing:

Should the government have the right to ask those living in the country whether or not they are citizens? Is the historical use of a citizenship question in past censuses and surveys relevant to the use of such a question in our country today? How accurate is any census no matter what is asked?










2 thoughts on “Counting On Census Controversy

  1. Of course the government has a right to know! I think the debate is just silly because even the government can’t force someone to answer truthfully or not.


  2. How right you are, Marilyn! Even if an immigrant is not deterred from answering the question, who’s to say that they (or anyone else for that matter) will answer truthfully? Thanks for reading!


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