By Miriam Raftery
March 28, 2018 (San Diego) – The U.S. Commerce Department has announced that it will ask a question on citizenship status during the 2020 Census. The question was removed from the Census back in 1950, but Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross claims that the change will permit “more effective enforcement” of the Voting Rights Act. But critics contend the move will instead diminish minority representation in Congress.
The Constitution, in fact, requires that every resident be counted in the census every 10 years, whether or not they are citizens. The results are used not only to determine how many Congressional districts each state will have, but also the amount of federal grants and subsidies that will be provided. If minorities fail to participate for fear of answering a citizenship question, California and areas such as San Diego County with high minority populations and areas with high poverty rates could lose billions of dollars in federal funds.
Kristen Clark, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, issued a statement condemning the last minute addition of the citizenship question in the Census.
She states, “This is a clear attempt to politicize the process by discouraging minority communities and immigrant communities from participating in the count. This decision comes at a time when we have seen xenophobic and anti-immigrant policy positions from this administration,” she notes, calling the action “an arbitrary and untested decision that all but guarantees that the Census will not produce a full and accurate count of the population as the constitution requires.”
She notes that under the Trump Justice Department, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has come to a “grinding halt,” adding that the department has been “hostile to safeguarding minority rights.” She calls Ross’s claim that the action aims to help enforcing the act “a mere pretext to mask the discriminatory motives underlying this move.”
California has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the citizenship question, and now 12 state attorney generals have filed a separate multi-state lawsuit.
White House Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in a press briefing, defending the question, claiming it is “necessary for the Department to protect voters” but failed to elaborate on exactly which voters it would protect, or how.
Critics also fault the Commerce Department for adding the question at the last minute. Proposals to ad new questions to the Census normally go through years of vetting, the New York Times reports. But the announcement to add the citizenship question was made just days before the April 1st deadline.
Kenneth Prewitt, former Censure Bureau director under President Bill Clinton, says the question is “certainly unnecessary” adding, “The Voting Rights Act is being administered very well with data from the American Community Survey. The Justice Department has ruled on that a number of times over the last 15 years,” he adds.
The Trump administration points to other countries that ask citizenship questions as reason to do so here, too.
But those fearful of deportation under the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants could significantly skew the 2020 survey. The New York Times reports that at an English as a second language class in Queens, New York, all but one of the 30 students said the “likely wouldn’t open the door” if they knew they would be asked about citizenship status by a census taker.