EDITORIAL: Quick way to undermine the U.S. Census? Ask about citizenship

SHARE EDITORIAL: Quick way to undermine the U.S. Census? Ask about citizenship

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears on Oct. 12 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss preparing for the 2020 Census on Capitol Hill in Washington. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

Are you a legal citizen of the United States?

That question, in some shape or form, could be included in the 2020 Census, and that’s not good.

It could result in serious financial harm to Illinois and other states that have significant immigrant populations, increase the already high cost of conducting the Census, and undermine the entire point of the effort.


If the purpose of the Census, conducted every 10 years, is to get an accurate count of how many people live in the United States, regardless of legal status, poking around with a question about citizenship is an excellent way to fail.

The results of the Census determine each state’s share of representation in Congress, as well as each state’s cut of the hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money allocated every year. If the Census includes “a question regarding citizenship” on its questionnaire, as the Justice Department has requested, there will be a significant undercount in Illinois and other states with so-called “hard to count” populations.

Add that to the Census Bureau’s other big problems this year — underfunding and mismanagement — and the result will be a 2020 Census count that nobody can trust.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross would be wise to tell the Justice Department that its question won’t be on the final Census form to be submitted to Congress for approval by the end of March. If Ross does throw the question in, Congress should throw it out.

The Census Bureau already has its hands full trying to ensure its first mostly online census works smoothly. The bureau’s director left in May and hasn’t been replaced, and Congress is insisting the bureau spend no more than the $13 billion it spent the last time around, despite 10 years of inflation and millions more people to count.

There is too little time left to field-test the citizenship question, which normally would be done, but anybody can guess what the reception would be. Undocumented immigrants wouldn’t fill out the forms. Neither would large numbers of legal immigrants, worried about which group of foreigners President Donald Trump will target next.

Already, the 2020 Census is unlikely to be kind to Illinois, which likely will slip in status to being only the sixth largest state, and experts predict Chicago will drop down a rung to become the nation’s fourth largest city.

Illinois’ congressional delegation likely will shrink even if the Census count is accurate.

The more people withdraw into the shadows, declining to participate in the Census, the more the bureau will be forced to send out enumerators to track down those people. That’s expensive and not especially effective. The final count still will be shaky.

The Justice Department, led by Jeff Sessions, an attorney general known for his anti-immigration agenda, says it wants to include the citizenship question as part of an effort to better enforce our nation’s election laws.

Before all else, the purpose of the Census is to count everybody. Let’s stick to the job.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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