When U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March 2018 that he was adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, it triggered legal challenges by cities, counties, states and immigrant-rights groups. One of the lawsuits, brought by the New York Attorney General’s office, prompted a federal judge to block the addition of the question. President Donald Trump’s administration took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on June 27 ruled that the Commerce Department’s explanation for adding the question was “contrived.” But Trump isn’t giving up.
1. Why the backlash?
Critics say asking about citizenship status could scare immigrants and noncitizens away from filling out the once-a-decade census questionnaire. That would skew the count, diluting the political power of those who didn’t respond. The critics say Ross is promoting a Trump administration effort to undercount Hispanics and other minorities. The Trump administration calls that a fever dream and says it needs to ask the question to help enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination in election procedures.
2. What’s at stake?
Power. Census results are used to apportion U.S. congressional seats, divvy up the Electoral College votes that determine the winners of presidential elections and distribute billions of dollars a year in federal grants and aid to states and localities. Census-guided changes to the U.S. political map could give Democrats or Republicans an advantage for a decade or more.
3. Has the census asked about citizenship before?
Yes. The question “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” or something like it was part of the census as far back as 1820. But it came to be seen as less important as the waves of immigrants to U.S. shores receded, and it last appeared on the complete, decennial survey in 1950. In 1970, thanks to political pressure, the question returned on the long-form survey sent only to some households. From there it migrated to the annual American Community Survey, which replaced the long form in 2005.
4. What’s the legal issue?
Whether the administration acted on a legitimate need for information on noncitizens or on a desire to limit their political power. Ross, whose department includes the Census Bureau, initially said he added the question after a request from the Justice Department. Later he acknowledged having discussed the issue with immigration hawks including former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was on the president’s disbanded voter-fraud commission, and former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon before pressing the Justice Department on the question. In his ruling Jan. 15, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman said Ross “violated the law” and “violated the public trust” in deciding to include the question, which, the judge found, would cause hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to “go uncounted in the census.” Federal judges in Maryland and San Francisco echoed Furman’s ruling.
5. What’s the case against asking the citizenship question?
That its real purpose is to discourage people who live in immigrant communities from participating in the survey for fear that federal agents might use their responses to target them or someone in their household, even if they are in the U.S. legally. In late May, the plaintiffs in the New York case unveiled what they said was new evidence that shows that a Republican redistricting consultant played a significant role in the decision to add the question.
6. What does the government say?
That the citizenship question will improve the accuracy of the count and that claims about political motivation are based on “unrelated innuendos.” As for how the question came to be, the U.S. says that internal discussion of such important matters is common and that the secretary of commerce has complete control of the format and content of the census. The administration points to a 1996 Supreme Court decision that unanimously upheld the Census Bureau’s decision not to statistically adjust its survey results.
7. Does the Census Bureau share the identities of noncitizens?
No. The bureau wouldn’t pass along the name and address of a noncitizen to immigration authorities, for example. That’s not to say this isn’t a real fear among some Hispanics and other minorities, such as Asians, whose households may have disproportionate numbers of noncitizens, says William Frey of the Brookings Institution, an expert on the census who isn’t involved in the case. Frey says 14% of the U.S. population lives in households with one or more noncitizens.
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