Democrats in multiple states are planning to sue the Trump administration to stop the 2020 U.S. census from asking whether people living in the U.S. are citizens, a move that may find initial success in the courts but may also be based on false assumptions.
The citizenship question appeared on every census form from 1820 through 1950. From 1960 through 2000, it appeared on the long form sent to about one-sixth of U.S. residences. 2010 is the only census in the past 200 years not to include the question to anyone.
Nonetheless, left-leaning states like California and New York are headed to court to prevent the question from appearing on the census.
“Having an accurate Census count should be of the utmost importance for every Californian,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “The Census numbers provide the backbone for planning how our communities can grow and thrive in the coming decade. California simply has too much to lose for us to allow the Trump administration to botch this important decennial obligation.”
“This move directly targets states like New York that have large, thriving immigrant populations — threatening billions of dollars in federal funding for New York as well as fair representation in Congress and the electoral college,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The concern from Becerra, Schneiderman and others is that people living in the U.S. who are either not citizens or not in the country legally will be far more reluctant to fill out the census, thus skewing the data received and depriving certain states the congressional representation they ought to have and the government spending it needs.
And while the U.S. census is under the control of the executive branch through the Commerce Department, don’t be surprised if the courts back the challengers.
“We’ll get a court to enjoin this. There’s no question. The reason for that is that if the Trump administration were to say the sky is blue, you could find a federal court at this point to enjoin that and say it’s not correct,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.
“There’s just so many judges out there who have a deep suspicion of every motive and every action of the administration, that’s they’ll find a reason,” said Camarota, who says the likely verdict of the Supreme Court on this is less clear.
But while plenty of attention has been paid to the blowback from Democrats, why is the Commerce Department adding this question back into the census?
“It came at the request of the Justice Department, which said that we’d really like to have this question because it would be helpful in enforcing voting rights law,” said Camarota.
At issue is greater scrutiny of racial and ethnic gerrymandering and whether the drawing of legislative districts is putting certain people under a greater burden to get to the polls.
“You’re allowed to gerrymander for political reasons but you’re not allowed to explicitly try to dilute political power among different racial minorities. Or another example is the placement of a polling place. You can have a situation where minorities are all in one part of the area but the polling place is very far away and very inconvenient,” said Camarota.
“The same kind of thing could apply to naturalized citizens. Does the placement of polling places or does the gerrymandering tend to dilute or make difficult the voting of naturalized citizens. That’s why you would ask the question they’re planning on asking,” added Camarota.
While the reaction to the citizenship question is falling largely along party lines, Camarota says on the surface it is reasonable to wonder it will lead to fewer responses and less accurate data..
“The question is does the benefit you get by asking this question offset the risk that you might reduce the quality of Census Bureau data,” said Camarota. “I think it’s not an unreasonable concern. I think it’s an open question.”
That being said, Camarota says the best evidence suggests there probably would not be much of a drop off, if any, if the question is added to the census based on what we see with other surveys.
“Every year we do what’s called the American Community Survey. It shoots for about one and a half to two percent of the population and they ask all these detailed questions, several related to citizenship. The second survey we have is the Current Population Survey. It’s done every month. It’s where we get the unemployment numbers. It has also been asking about citizenship for many years now,” said Camarota.
He says Trump’s campaign and presidency seem to have little or no impact on the response rate.
“The argument is that there’s a kind of Trump effect, that in the new context of increased immigration enforcement, now we’re really going to see people respond (at different rates). You don’t really see it.
“With the American Community Survey, Trump ran for office and won office in 2016, but the share of people who refused to take the survey didn’t change between ’15 and ’16, which is what you’d expect if people were reluctant to answer these questions,” said Camarota.
He says the rate of response is trending down but that development began long before Trump’s political rise. In addition, the same pattern can be seen on the monthly surveys.
“You’d think they’d be really reluctant to answer the question and you can do an analysis to see if in fact people are not answering that question, leaving it blank or what have you. There’s been no rise.
“Even if you try to put on a graph the months in which Trump did well – he announced his candidacy, or won the nomination, or won the presidency – and then look at several months after, there’s just no change in the continuity of the data,” said Camarota.
According to Camarota, the evidence just isn’t there to suggest returning the question to the census will skew the results.
“That would tend to undermine the idea that putting this question on is going to make much difference one way or the other. I think it is harder and harder to gather data. I think that has to do with the decline in trust for government. It has to do with the decline in civic mindedness. People don’t see it so much as their civic responsibility anymore.
“I think those things are true, but I don’t think it has much to do with the citizenship question,” said Camarota.