Census 2020: What’s the Impact of the Citizenship Question?

On March 26th, the United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross directed the Census Bureau to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census.  Organizations concerned about ensuring an accurate count in the 2020 Census, including OneAmerica, were outraged.

Here is a statement from OneAmerica on the decision:

“At a time when the federal government is on a crusade to tear apart immigrant families and to shut the door on Muslim immigrants and refugees, the decision by the Department of Commerce to add a question on citizenship on the 2020 Census smacks of a plot to use the 2020 Census as a tool to suppress participation. The President, Attorney General, and Commerce Secretary have unnecessarily politicized the Census under the disingenuous guise of protecting the voting system from an imaginary problem.  The purpose of the Census is to get a complete count of everyone in America. Its accuracy is extremely important given how Census data is used to determine how federal and state funds will be allocated.  This decision must be reversed in order to protect the integrity and accuracy of the Census.”

For a detailed summary about the addition of the Citizenship question to the census, please review this fact sheet from Asian Americans Advancing Justice. And for a detailed summary of confidentiality rules governing the Census, please check out this fact sheet from Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights..

This decision is significant because many estimate that a question on Citizenship could discourage millions of American residents (undocumented immigrants, their family members, other immigrants concerned about the government) from filling out the Census form in 2020.  The question–coming this late in the Census planning phase–also poses logistical challenges for the Census. This isn’t the only issue of concern.

The citizenship question delays Census preparations that are already behind schedule.  Questions reflecting best practice in gathering demographic information on race and ethnicity have been dropped. Congressional cost-cutting has led to Census administrators cutting corners.  And calls to push the Census toward an on-line survey risk missing individuals without access to the internet have fallen on deaf ears.

Under the current administration, communities are rightfully concerned about how the federal government will use the Census data.  Fortunately, information gathered by the Census must be kept confidential and may not legally be shared with other government agencies.

Ultimately, it will fall on state-wide and local communities and trusted community-based group to fill the gap.  An incomplete count could lead to millions of dollars in federal, state, and local investments lost or misallocated–leading to decreased political power and clout for undercounted communities, the ones that need it the most.  So community-based organizations across the country like OneAmerica are developing strategies to educate communities on the importance of the Census, how data from the Census may or may not be used, and to assist community members to participate.

During the legislative session here in Washington State, the Governor requested and the legislature approved an initial investment of over $450,000 to assist local governments in disseminating accurate information about the Census, especially in undercounted communities.  OneAmerica was one of several organizations that lobbied hard for that appropriation.  And as a result, King County followed suit with a resolution earlier this month confirming the County’s commitment to a complete Census count.

This will continue to be a developing story over the coming months.  Congress has the ability to overturn the decision to include the Citizenship question on the Census.  Whether they will find common ground and moral courage to de-politicize the census and ensure a complete count remains to be seen.

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