People For the American Way

DOJ Request for Census Citizenship Question is Unnecessary and Harmful

People For in Action
DOJ Request for Census Citizenship Question is Unnecessary and Harmful

As if the InJustice Department weren’t busy enough, DOJ wrote to the U.S. Census Bureau on December 12 to request that a new citizenship question be added to the 2020 Census. Simply put, such a request is untimely, unnecessary, and harmful—it would destroy any chance for an accurate count, discard years of careful research, and increase costs significantly. People For the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and more than 160 other organizations wrote to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and urged him to reject DOJ’s request. You can download our January 10 letter, with signers, here.

Dear Secretary Ross:

On behalf of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the civil and human rights of all persons in the United States, and the undersigned 168 organizations, we urge you to reject the Department of Justice’s untimely and unnecessary request for a new citizenship question on the 2020 Census, which would threaten a fair and accurate decennial census. Adding a new citizenship question to the 2020 Census would destroy any chance for an accurate count, discard years of careful research, and increase costs significantly.

You and your staff have made clear that you share our goal of a full, fair, and accurate census. A fair and accurate census, and the collection of useful, objective data about our nation’s people, housing, economy, and communities generally, are among the most significant civil rights issues facing the country today. Every census since the first enumeration in 1790 has included citizens and non-citizens alike. Adding a new question on citizenship to the 2020 Census undoubtedly would affect response rates, outreach, and advertising strategies, and other important elements of the nation’s largest, most complex peacetime activity, calling into question the results of many years of costly, painstaking research and testing.

Adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census would disrupt preparations at a pivotal point in the decade, undermining years of research and testing and increasing census costs significantly at a time when Congress has directed a less expensive enumeration. The Justice Department’s request would literally would add billions of dollars to the life-cycle cost of this census, without improving accuracy.

Questionnaire design and testing began nearly eight years ago during the 2010 Census. Requiring this new topic this late in the decade would threaten the success of the 2020 Census because robust testing in a census-like environment is essential, given the probable chilling effect of adding these questions to the form. There simply is no time to redesign the census form, craft scientifically sound questions to collect the information the Justice Department requests, and evaluate the impact of this new question on census participation and operations before the census starts, in any responsible way. Given the constitutional requirement to conduct the census in 2020, final planning and preparations for the census would be haphazard, at best, leaving the nation with a deeply flawed foundation for our democratic ideals, informed decision-making, and prudent allocation of precious taxpayer dollars.

In addition, adding this question would jeopardize the accuracy of the 2020 Census in every state and every community by deterring many people from responding. The question is unnecessarily intrusive and will raise concerns in all households—native- and foreign-born, citizens and non-citizens—about the confidentiality of information provided to the government and how that information might be used. Moreover, there are many mixed status households in the United States, which include members who are both citizens and non-citizens with various legal statuses. Mixed-status and immigrant households will be especially fearful of providing information to the federal government in 2020, given the heightened climate of fear that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have created. In short, any effort to determine citizenship through the constitutionally required census would jeopardize the accuracy of the entire count, leaving public, private, and nonprofit decision-makers with bad information for all purposes, for the next 10 years. Further, such an effort is likely to shake public confidence in the narrow (though vital) statistical objectives of the Census Bureau’s work, damaging ongoing data collection efforts well into the future.

Finally, in addition to being untimely, the request is unnecessary. The Justice Department has never needed to add this new question to the decennial census to enforce the Voting Rights Act before, so there is no reason it would need to do so now. Contrary to the Justice Department’s letter, the Census Bureau has not included a citizenship question on the modern census “short form,” sent to every household. In fact, no such question has appeared on the census “short form” since enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Estimates of the citizen voting-age population derived from the ongoing American Community Survey, and the so-called census “long” or sample form before that, have been and continue to be suitable for purposes of civil rights and Voting Rights Act enforcement. Whether utilizing such data for Section 2 enforcement actions, Section 203 determinations, or other voting rights enforcement efforts, courts and the Justice Department have accepted census data as currently collected since enactment of the Voting Rights Act. Given these plain facts, the entire justification for the request should be viewed skeptically as an attempt to throw a wrench into final planning and preparations for an enumeration that already faces enormous challenges, including inadequate and delayed funding, cyber-security risks, and a climate of fear fanned by anti-immigrant rhetoric.

For these reasons, we urge you to reject the Justice Department’s request to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. If you have any questions about these comments, please contact Leadership Conference Census Task Force Co-chairs Terry Ao Minnis, Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC, at 202-296-2300 x0127, or Arturo Vargas, NALEO Educational Fund, at 213-747-7606, or Chris Harley, Census Campaign Director at 202-466-3311.