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The Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census

The Commerce Department announced in March 2018 that they will include a question on the 2020 Census asking all respondents whether they are U.S. citizens. The move was almost uniformly opposed by Democrats.

Current Status
Incoming House Committee on Oversight and Reform chair Rep. Cummings says that he will investigate the addition of the citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
Next Steps
Commerce Secretary Ross will testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on March 14, 2019.

Key legislators

Rep. Elijah Cummings [D-MD7]

Cummings is the Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform which will be investigating the citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

Summary

The Commerce Department announced in March 2018 that they will include a question on the 2020 Census asking all respondents whether they are U.S. citizens. The move was almost uniformly opposed by Democrats.

As the minority party, Democrats have been requesting documents and information which have generally been refused by the Commerce Department or stymied by Republican committee leadership. But now Democrats -- led by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD7) -- will gain control of the House Oversight Committee in January.

What they could find

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross had repeatedly said that the question was added in response to a Justice Department request in December 2017. However, documents revealed in October, as part of a lawsuit initiated by New York state, revealed that the citizenship question originated from within the Commerce Department in coordination with Steve Bannon, then chief strategist at the White House.

Democrats could subpoena documents or witnesses, in hopes of finding similar information.

They could also defund any Census form that includes the citizenship question. This could prove problematic if the administration still refuses to back down, because the Census is mandated by the Constitution and thus one of the only aspects of government that’s not subject to an impasse.

Majority party / Democrats

Democrats argue that the Census question is primarily a political attempt by the administration to target undocumented immigrants, and could inadvertently harm millions of legal citizens, both immigrant and natural-born.

“People across the country — including in red, blue, and purple states — need to understand that if their communities are undercounted, they could lose critical funds for highways, education, healthcare, and an array of other federal programs,” Rep. Cummings said in a statement shortly after the planned question was first announced. “The Trump Administration’s plan to insert a new, untested question on citizenship will increase costs for American taxpayers and decrease the accuracy of the census itself.”

“I personally spoke with Secretary Ross about this issue, and I am very disappointed that he appears to be disregarding the views of Republican and Democratic experts — including six former Census Directors,” Rep. Cummings continued. “[He] is instead rushing ahead with a politically-motivated decision that will jeopardize the full, fair, and accurate count our Constitution demands.”

Minority party / Republicans

Republicans counter that the move is both returning to historical precedent, and that while it will make no difference to you if you are a citizen, even if you’re not a citizen then the answers will only be used anonymously.

“Collection of citizenship data by the Census has been a long-standing historical practice,” Ross wrote in a letter announcing the move. “Prior decennial census surveys of the entire United States population consistently asked citizenship questions up until 1950, and Census Bureau surveys of sample populations continue to ask citizenship questions to this day.”

“For the approximately 90 percent of the population who are citizens, this question is no additional imposition,” Ross continued. “And for the approximately 70 percent of non-citizens who already answer this question accurately on the ACS [American Community Survey], the question is no additional imposition since census responses by law may only be used anonymously and for statistical purposes.”

What to expect next

The 2020 Census forms are expected to be finalized in summer 2019, meaning any work to halt the question would have to be done in the early months of the year.

Oversight Committee Democrats could try to pass a defunding bill for any such Census form with the citizenship question. Although with the Senate still in Republican control, they may be forced to try including as a provision in a larger “must-pass” bill rather than as standalone legislation.

The parallel lawsuit led by blue states seeking to remove the citizenship question may be a more likely scenario. Oral arguments concluded in November 2018 and District Judge Jesse Furman issued a ruling ordering the question removed in January 2019. The case is expected to be appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately the Supreme Court.

Incredibly, the government’s only witness -- Census Bureau associate director for research and methodology John Abowd -- himself disagreed with the government’s position on the stand.

Timeline

  1. Census Bureau Announces Question - Mar. 28, 2018
  2. Questions Planned for the 2020 Census and American Community Survey - Mar. 29, 2018
  3. Rep. Cummings (D) letter to House Oversight - Sept. 24, 2018

Updated Jan 3, 2019

Key legislation

H.R. 5359 (115th): 2020 Census IDEA Act

This bill will require the Secretary of Commerce to provide advance notice to Congress before changing any questions on the decennial census.

H.R. 5292 (115th): 2020 Census Accountability Act

This bill will establish a task force to review new decennial census questions and their impact on response rates for minorities, the accuracy of the census, redistricting, costs and funding distribution.

H.Res. 877 (115th): Of inquiry directing the Secretary of Commerce to provide certain documents in the Secretary’s possession to the ...

This bill directs the Secretary of Commerce to provide certain documents in the Secretary’s possession to the House of Representatives relating to the decision to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 decennial census of population.

H.R. 3600 (115th): Census Accuracy Act of 2017

This bill directs the Census Bureau to add a question on citizenship indicating the respondent's legal status.

Updates

The Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census

Commerce Secretary Ross will testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on March 14, 2019 about the citizenship question and his testimony from last year about how it came to be added to the 2020 Census form.

The Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census

Several lawsuits have been filed against the Trump Administration over the inclusion of the citizenship question. The first case, led by blue states seeking to remove the citizenship question concluded oral arguments in November 2018. District Judge Jesse Furman issued a ruling ordering the question removed in January 2019. The case is expected to be appealed to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and ultimately the Supreme Court. In light of this ruling, the judge for another of the suits has asked the parties to consider whether their litigation should go forward.