Why I Might Skip the Citizenship Question on the Census

The Trump Administration is playing politics with Census 2020. That’s one reason a federal judge should soon deliver a blow to Trump’s war on immigrants. Any day now a federal judge in New York is expected to strike the administration’s proposed census question about citizenship status.

Immigration advocates and even scientists within the Census Bureau say that the question would cause more immigrants — both legal and illegal — to refuse to take part in the census. The fear among these communities is that immigration and customs enforcement agents would use the responses to track people down, leading to increased family separations and deportations.

A total of 18 states and a coalition of civil rights organizations argue in the New York lawsuit that the question should be excluded from the 2020 questionnaire due to the risk of undercounts. Experts feel confident the judge will remove the question, which hasn’t been tested and was removed from the census form after 1950. Judges have greenlighted five additional lawsuits contesting the question despite the administration’s attempts to have them thrown out, including California v. Ross, which started this week.

Still, I am anxious about the potential outcome. The debate creates a serious conflict where my professional life and personal identity collide. As a census expert, I know that everyone must be counted so that the census can provide accurate information to those who draw congressional and legislative districts and allocate $800 billion in federal funds for Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, school lunches and other programs.

But as a Caribbean-American with a Canadian passport, there’s a part of me — the personal me, not the professional me — considering civil disobedience. If the citizenship question makes it onto the census, do I want to draw the attention of immigration officials to my community by checking the box that says noncitizen? I am a legal resident now in the country I call home, but I know what it’s like to cross the border as a child with a mother seeking better opportunities. What is the best way to look out for those families?

There are millions of citizens and legal residents like me who really want to believe Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross when he says he added the citizenship question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, emails have emerged that contradict his initial explanation and expose the Administration’s political motivations.

We now know there are active efforts to suppress voter turnout from communities of color, including efforts by the Russians to aid the President’s election. The campaign to add a citizenship question is a similarly sinister attempt to undercount immigrants in order to undermine the voting rights and equal representation of emerging communities. Although both urban and rural areas are considered hard to count by the Census Bureau, adding a question on citizenship will cost blue states more. If 15 percent of noncitizens are uncounted, Montana and Colorado could gain a congressional seat at the expense of New York and California.

President Trump has time and again stoked American fears to justify actions that divide our country based on race, national origin and religion. We saw this with the Muslim travel ban, the promise to end DACA and the revocation of legal residency for refugees from Haiti and El Salvador. He shut down the government over funding for a border wall while 15,000 migrant children are held in shelters.

Today protections of private information are in place that should prevent the sharing of confidential census data with ICE or other enforcement agencies. Just fear alone can be enough to chill the responses of millions who are not citizens or who have loved ones on the path to citizenship.

I am weighing the consequences of not answering a question. One on hand, all my other information will still count toward funding and representation. On the other, refusing to answer any census question, or intentionally giving a false answer to one, is illegal. I could be fined, however unlikely.

Not fully participating in the census also runs contrary to my core belief in a reflective and participatory democracy. My mother’s American Dream was focused on making our family stronger. My passion is to make the country better, ensure everyone has a voice, and that their voices are heard.

Whatever the ruling in New York and the other lawsuits, they won’t be the final word. This limbo could last until the Supreme Court intervenes. Ultimately, the census will go to print in June 2019, with or without the citizenship question.