The Justice Department insists that the US Census’ new “citizenship question” isn’t meant to deter immigrant communities from being counted in the next census, but that could be a very real possibility.
In most cases, announcing changes to the US Census incites the type of ambivalence, from the American public, that only deeply bureaucratic institutions are capable of. Usually, changes to the census aren’t met with much fanfare, because a large part of it are just minor organizational changes. Yet the US Census Bureau, last Monday night, may have bucked that trend.
With the announcement of the 2020 US Census adding a question that asks individuals to record which members of your household are US citizens, it naturally raised some eyebrows. A few hours later, 14 states had issued lawsuits against the federal government, in hopes of creating enough pressure to leave off the citizenship question. Even after the news, the Congressional Research Service insisted that asking about information regarding citizenship would only provide a better understanding of who actually is in the United States. Many are also pointing out that the citizenship question had appeared on past census surveys and is just being reinstated after being taken out in the 2010 Census. While that might be the case, it could also cause bigger problems than many foresee.
The obvious worry that many undocumented residents have revolve around the census data being used as a tool to target individuals for deportation. Even though this is a very real fear for many undocumented immigrants, the fact is personal information filled out in a US Census is never shared with other federal agencies. Federal law makes that very clear. Also it’s important to note that the “citizenship question” just asks the filer to identify US citizens in their family, not the immigration status of individuals. So even if information were to be shared – once again, it wouldn’t be!!! – immigrants with undocumented status couldn’t be ascertained by the question. After all, how would they be able to differentiate between those here illegally or those here with proper legal standing (ie work visa, green card, ect). Yet for many researchers, they worry about a bigger fear: individuals not filling out the US Census entirely.
On the outside, the US Census might feel like nothing more than an academic exercise that happens once every ten years; in reality however, it’s a vital tool for the federal government. The US Census plays a major role in how the federal government allocates funding, green lights infrastructure projects, and helps with creating voting districts for the next ten years. For many researchers, the US Census is also the backbone of most American public policy research. What makes matters worse, even though social scientists are able to determine population densities through statistical models, however the Supreme Court ruled some time back that the US Census couldn’t fill out the gaps left by people who hadn’t participated in it. This, as you may have guessed, can be extremely problematic for communities that house large immigrant populations.
With the citizenship question returning in the US Census, many immigrant communities now potentially run the risk of losing out on government funding and/or proper representation of their interests being championed in Congress. Particularly, areas that are known to be “sanctuary cities” could be the hardest hit by the new policy, due to their population numbers not being accurately reported. This could lead to government funding not going to communities that would need it the most due to the US Census not representing these areas accurately. Or worse, these communities not getting congressional representation that mirrors their interests.
Even though Republicans are insisting that the citizenship question on the census is to better enforce the Voting Rights Act by making sure minority communities are properly being represented, many Democrats remain skeptical. Historically speaking, through gerrymandering practices, Republicans have tried to split Democratically-favored districts – usually in large minority or immigrant communities – in hopes of getting more Republicans into state office. From the outside looking in, adding the citizenship question on the 2020 US Census can be viewed as another attempt for the GOP to gain more state seats by gaming the redistricting system. However, in reality, it’s too early to tell if that is in fact their strategy. Regardless, considering census takers have had trouble getting undocumented immigrants to fill out census information in the past, the new citizenship question is probably not going to help matters.
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