EDITORIAL: Citizenship question could put 2020 Census down for the count

SHARE EDITORIAL: Citizenship question could put 2020 Census down for the count
Copies of the 2010 census forms

The 2020 U.S. Census will add a question about citizenship status, a move that brought swift condemnation from Democrats who said it would intimidate immigrants and discourage them from participating. | AP File Photo/Ross D. Franklin

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File

For two convincing reasons, the U.S. Census in 2020 has no business asking you if you are a citizen:

To begin with, the question is almost entirely politically motivated, though its defenders pretend otherwise. The obvious intent of including a citizenship question in the census is to discourage immigrants — especially those who are undocumented — from participating in the count.

That could result in a significant undercount of the total population in big cities and blue states, such as Chicago and Illinois, where most immigrants live. It would only help Republicans hang on to their majorities in Congress, as well as the White House and the Supreme Court.


Secondly, the Constitution says the paramount purpose of the census is to count every single person who lives in the United States, and the courts have ruled that this includes non-citizens. Anything that undermines this mission — to count every breathing person — violates the intent of the Founding Fathers.

In a different era — up until 1950 — asking people for their citizenship status was routine. Even now, it is entirely reasonable to think such data would be useful. The Justice Department says it would use the data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But data about citizenship already are available through smaller surveys conducted regularly between the decennial censuses. And in today’s America, people who are not citizens will fear, understandably, that divulging their citizenship status will put them on a fast road to deportation.

The Census Bureau can’t legally turn over personal data to other government departments, but plenty of people won’t find much comfort in that. Census privacy protections didn’t hold up well for Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II.

People who are advised not to open their doors because it might be U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents knocking will be much less likely to open their doors for a census taker if the questions include one about citizenship.

The Census Bureau announced last week that the citizenship question will be included in the next census, though Congress still can — and should — nix the idea. Meanwhile, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is preparing to join a lawsuit filed by other states to stop the question from being added to the census. That’s a sensible step.

Illinois also should pass legislation now being drawn up to appropriate money for a statewide effort to get people counted in hard-to-count areas. The money would be used to provide counselors and census forms at government offices and social centers such as the local Y. It also would pay for laptops because the 2020 Census will be the first to go mostly online.

At stake are a fair share of representation in Congress for Illinois and more than $675 billion in federal money that is distributed each year based on census data. Research based on census data also could be undermined.

On Friday, a Census Bureau panel of experts said the decision to include the citizenship question was based on flawed logic. The 2020 Census already is beset by underfunding and lack of time to conduct field tests. The citizenship question amounts to one more reason to doubt it will be sufficiently accurate.

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