Don’t Count Us Out of the Fight

Congress must step in and amend the decision to add an untested citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice failed to ease concerns about adding an untested and unnecessary question to the 2020 Census asking about the citizenship status of every person in America. This question sets back deliberate and scientifically-tested Census 2020 research and planning and calls into question whether we will be able to achieve a fair and accurate census in 2020. This decision is bad for the census, bad for our communities, and bad for America. It must not be allowed to stand.

The Constitution mandates that all people in the U.S. must be counted, regardless of citizenship status. For the last 70 years we have been able to acquire census data without the existence of a citizenship question and frankly, there is no legitimate basis that has been provided for adding it now.

We have been able to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) for many years without this question so we must query, “why now?”

The current Department of Justice (DOJ) has purported a need for this citizenship question to enforce the VRA, which goes against what DOJ has needed for the entire existence of the VRA.

The last time the census collected citizenship data from the entire population was in 1950, 15 years before the VRA was enacted. There is no legitimate reason for this new, untested change in questions on the census form.

What we do know, and what the Census Bureau itself knows, is that residents are fearful of responding to government surveys because of the current anti-immigrant environment. The Census Bureau’s own research bears out this fear and the resulting ramification. Make no mistake, immigrants and citizens who have immigrants in their household will be reluctant to participate in a decennial census that asks about citizenship and participation in the upcoming census will plummet. In fact, this question will raise concerns in all households — native- and foreign-born, citizen and non-citizen — about the confidentiality of their personal information and how government authorities may use that information. An inaccurate Census count will be particularly devastating to the Asian American community because as a whole, Asian Americans are the “newest” Americans, with 92 percent of the community comprised of individuals who are foreign-born or are the children of immigrants.

What we do not know is just how badly this decision harms the upcoming count because this is an untested question that has not been vetted through the proper scientific rigors as other questions on the census have been. Conducting a census with major untested elements will force the Census Bureau to conduct the count with a blindfold on. The Census Bureau conducted careful research and testing over the last eight years to develop the census questions. The addition of this new and controversial question invalidates that research, wasting years and millions of taxpayers’ dollars, and risks jeopardizing the success of the count.

An unsuccessful and inaccurate census harms all American communities. The American public relies on census data. Census data are the foundation of our democracy — in fact, the constitutional mandate to count every person in the county is done to reapportion the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Census data are also used to redraw the lines of those seats, as well as at the state and local level. It also informs the distribution of federal, state and local dollars — including about 300 federal programs that allocate over $800 billion a year to states. Finally, census data are also critical to guiding decisions and planning for the government, for businesses and for nonprofits. Without census data to guide our planning, we cannot effectively and efficiently use our limited resources to address the significant needs of our communities.

We also don’t know the specific cost implications of this last-minute, hasty decision, but we do know that the cost to taxpayers of adding an untested question this late in the process will be significant. According to the Census Bureau, every one percent decrease in the self-response rate will increase the cost of the count by $55 million. Even a five percent drop in self response would add an additional, unplanned $275 million to the census. Through its oversight authority and its appropriations process, Congress must continue to step in and step up to press the Commerce Department both about the process by which this decision was made and what operational and cost implications result from the decision.

At the same time, Congress must go a step further and fix this decision. The stakes are too high to allow this question to derail the count. We don’t need a citizenship question — no one in the mainstream wanted Secretary Ross to make this decision. Six previous Census Bureau Directors, from Republican and Democratic Administrations, agree that such a question is unnecessary and counterproductive, as did more than 60 Members of Congress, 161 Democratic and Republican mayors, 19 state attorneys general and numerous businesses, community organizations, and think tanks — including the conservative American Enterprise Institute. For these reasons, we stand in solidarity with others across all the country, committed to fighting against the addition of such a question at every turn. The future of all Americans is at risk — that is why we must pick ourselves up from this momentary knockdown and continue to fight on.

Read more: Our testimony to the House of Representative’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing on “Progress Report on the 2020 Census” (May 8, 2018)

Terry Ao Minnis is the director of census and voting rights at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.