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The upcoming 2020 census has sparked the latest immigration spat to grace the Trump administration. The Department of Commerce has indicated it will include a question asking respondents to identify their citizenship status, a proposal that has been met with accusations of sabotage, hateful views and threats of legal action.
Democrats claim that the decision is unconstitutional, as it may deter illegal immigrants from taking part out of fear of prosecution. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has already declared on twitter that he will file a lawsuit against the government over the question.
The Citizenship Question
Wilbur Ross, the Trump-appointed Commerce Secretary, made the decision to include the question in response to a DOJ request to gather data on the citizenship of residents, apparently in order to provide information necessary to enforce section two of the Voting Rights Act, which aims to prevent racial discrimination in voting practices.
A memo by Ross suggests that several options were considered before eventually deciding to include the question, with provisions for further research on possible alternatives. Although previous Census Bureau heads rejected a citizenship question on the grounds that it would significantly reduce response rates, Ross says there is little evidence to support this concern. He adds:
I find that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate…
For the approximately 90 percent of the population who are citizens, this question is no additional imposition. And for the approximately 70 percent of non-citizens who already answer this question accurately on the ACS, the question is no additional imposition since census responses by law may only be used anonymously and for statistical purposes.
The question in itself is not new. The national census has not asked respondents about their citizenship status since 1950, however, it is currently already used in other Census Bureau data collection tools, such as the yearly American Community Survey and the monthly Current Population Survey.
Is it Unconstitutional?
Democrats, however, are predicting a huge shortfall in response rates, as illegal immigrants may fear their responses will lead to punishment. Becerra penned an op-ed with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla in the San Francisco Chronicle, alleging that the inclusion of a citizenship question would “derail the integrity of the census” because it would “discourage noncitizens and their citizen family members from responding to the census, resulting in a less accurate population count.” Going even further, they claim that such a question is “not just a bad idea — it is illegal,” on the grounds that it would fail to count illegal immigrants, despite a constitutional requirement to survey all residents.
They argue that California would disproportionately lose out on federal funds if their illegal immigrant population went uncounted, although attorneys generals of 19 other states have also objected in a joint letter. It’s possible that California and other states with high immigrant populations are worried about more than just its funding; census data is used to determine House districts, a state’s number of House seats and their number of electoral votes during presidential elections.
Democrat representatives have also sought to stop the move by introducing the Every Person Counts Act, which would prevent the census from asking any questions about citizenship or immigration status. Among them was Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) who tweeted:
The federal census is NOT a tool to rally the President’s base. It’s a constitutionally mandated count of every single PERSON living in this country.
But it appears that Democrats and Latino advocacy groups who oppose the decision are the ones who are spreading unnecessary fear among immigrant populations. While the rhetoric implies undocumented immigrants would put themselves at risk by responding to a question of citizenship, there are legal protections in place to prevent this data being used against them.
Census data is confidential. No Census Bureau staff is permitted to release any person’s information, precisely to ensure that answers are honest and without fear of legal reprisals; to violate this privacy risks a fine of $250,000 and/or a federal prison sentence of 5 years. The Bureau is governed by Title 13 of the United States Code, which specifically states:
Personal information cannot be used against respondents by any government agency or court.
Individual information is held for 72 years before being released to the public, so that information on immigration status can be used only to develop statistical data, rather than used as evidence against individuals.
Rather than discouraging census participation by spreading unfounded fears, it would be more constructive to reassure illegal immigrants that their responses will be kept confidential.
Rather than standing up for the interests of illegal immigrants, it appears that Democrats are looking to manipulate an already fearful group of people in order to shore up their own political interests, and not for the first time.