As trial looms, survey shows citizenship question could harm 2020 census

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Days before a lawsuit opposing the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census goes to trial, a national opinion study commissioned by the bureau warned the question could be a "major barrier" to operations.

An effort by the Trump administration to delay court proceedings was rejected by the Supreme Court on Nov. 2. The lawsuit, in which several states and municipalities are objecting to a census question asking U.S. residents to report on their citizenship, will open on Nov.5 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

A survey commissioned by the Census Bureau found that the citizenship question could be a "major barrier" to an accurate survey, because of perceptions that the data gleaned from the question would be used to find undocumented immigrants and target them for deportation.

Among survey respondents who viewed the question as barrier to participation, "they tended to both believe the purpose of the question was to find undocumented immigrants and the political discourse is targeting their ethnic group," said Sarah Evans, who presented the findings at the November 1 National Advisory Committee hearing at the bureau.

Nearly one in four respondents to the Census Barriers, Attitudes and Motivators Study, conducted by the marketing firm Young and Rubicam to gauge feelings towards the census as part of its $415 million communications contracts, said they were "extremely concerned" or "very concerned" their answers to the 2020 Census "will be used against them." The groups with the highest levels of fear were Asian respondents, respondents with low English proficiency and those born outside the U.S.

The addition of the citizenship question was announced at the end of March and was not included on the 2018 end-to-end test, the dress rehearsal of processes for the decennial count. The CBAMS was conducted from February to April of this year.

Arturo Vargas, chief executive officer of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund, said the integrity and credibility of the count is "at serious risk" as a result of the question.

The technologies , updated processes and preparations on the local level face "difficult odds" of achieving the bureau's planned cost savings and improved response rates and accuracy as a result of the question, he pointed out. Other census advisers have blasted the citizenship question as endangering the count's response rates and operations.

Part of the purpose of the survey was to promote the new internet self-response option available for the 2020 population count. Just 32 percent of respondents to the CBAMS said they preferred paper forms, with 40 percent expressing a preference for an online form and 28 percent saying they had no preference.

In a blog post addressing the survey results, acting director Ron Jarmin did not directly respond to the concerns raised in the study, but did note, "there are misperceptions about the purpose of the 2020 Census."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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