The Department of Commerce is breaking with recent practice and restoring a question about respondent citizenship last used in 1950, despite being urged not to by former Census directors and outside experts.
In an important break with recent practice, the Department of Commerce announced March 26 plans to include a question on the 2020 census asking respondents about their U.S. citizenship.
In a letter to Commerce Undersecretary for Economic Affairs Karen Dunn Kelley, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he was directing the bureau to add the question in response to the Department of Justice’s December request to do so.
Submission of the final questions is due to Congress March 31.
The citizenship question has not appeared on decennial forms since 1950. In its request, DOJ cited the need to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as to why the question should be reinstated.
The decision also follows the Trump-Pence campaign’s effort to fundraise off the possibility of adding the question, and comes after the bureau has mailed out forms without the question in Providence, R.I., as part of its critical 2018 dress rehearsal. The question will appear last on the 2020 forms.
Census data serves as the foundation for population — and business — data throughout the United States. It also influences nearly $700 billion in federal grants — which fund roads and infrastructure, education, health care, local police stations and more — as well as the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives for the next 10 years.
Census experts, hundreds of civil and human rights groups, 161 Republican and Democratic mayors, 19 state attorneys general and former Census directors from Republican and Democratic administrations opposed the citizenship question. They said it will lower response rates from minorities and, in turn, increase costs of a count that’s already run more than $3 billion over budget.
Ross said "there is limited empirical evidence to support [the] view" that a citizenship question will depress response rates.
"However, even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns," he said.
California's attorney general Xavier Becerra announced that he intends to sue the administration over the addition of the citizenship question.
"Including the question is not just a bad idea — it is illegal," Becerra said late on March 26.
Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund, called the move “an affront to the federal government’s constitutional duty to carry out a complete count of the entire U.S. population.”
This is not the first move by the Trump administration that goes against recommendations for a more accurate count of minority populations. In January, Census opted not to follow through with plans to combine two questions on race and ethnicity into a single survey question. The bureau found minority populations were more likely to respond to a single combined question.
By Census's own estimates, the 2010 enumeration undercounted the Hispanic population by about 1.5 percent.
"The decision to include an untested, controversial question is disheartening. And the risk of a failed census just increased significantly," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and private consultant on four decennials. "I also am worried that public confidence in the integrity and safety of the census will plummet."
Public perception surrounding data privacy and the bureau’s ability to protect response data were identified by the Census Bureau as a “major concern” at its January quarterly program management review that threaten a successful count.