United States 2020 census form - stock photo
United States 2020 census form - stock photo

U.S. Census 2020: When a question becomes a threat

What has been a traditional governmental procedure since 1790 is now being used as a dangerous political weapon.


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The U.S. Census has been conducted every 10 years since 1790, but in the Trump era, history doesn’t seem to matter. There has been a lot of speculation about the impact of the 2020 count, in particular. 

When any census year approaches, the population count is critical.

However, next year runs the risk of having a much lower response rate, due to speculation and rhetoric concerning the content and the potential inclusion of a citizenship question.

A threatening question
In March 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau released the questions for the upcoming 2020 count. 

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross approved the Justice Department’s request to have a citizenship question added on the 2020 Census. If approved, this would be the first time that question has appeared on the questionnaire since 1950. 

To support the decision, the Justice Department stated that the query would provide a better count of voting-age citizens that would better enforce protections against voting discrimination, under the Voting Rights Act.

The usual format of the document, known as the American Community Survey (ACS), traditionally contained questions related to age, surface of residence, distance to work, professional training, etc., and since 1950 — even before the approval of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — this citizen survey has rejected the questioning of the migratory status of the persons surveyed.

In the several months since, there has been considerable pushback, due to the multitude of problems that would arise by having this question added, and how it would affect the purpose and impact of the census overall.

President Trump has remained adamant about the need to include the question, as part of his anti-immigrant policies. The downside of adding this question as a way to address immigration reform plays into the tactics the administration has utilized from the beginning — fear. 

“My initial reaction was that it sounded like they were trying to politicize a key part of our democracy, which is concerning to me,” Stephanie Reid, Director of Philly Counts 2020, told AL DÍA.

In a March 2018 tweet, Todd Schulte, President of, wrote: “This is designed to intentionally undercount immigrants and communities of color.”

From the Muslim travel ban to talks of building a wall separating the US-Mexico border, fear has continuously played a big role in the current administration’s approach towards immigration reform.

In a country led by an openly anti-immigrant administration that has increased the persecution and detention of undocumented citizens, many interpret the addition of this question as a "weapon for vote suppression.”

As a result, many states have filed lawsuits against the addition of the citizenship question — particularly states with a high number of immigrant residents who would be among those most affected by an undercount produced by residents who are afraid to be counted in the survey if they are required to list their immigration status.

After several months of uncertainty, on July 2, the Supreme Court ruled that the Census would be printed without adding the question. 

"We can confirm that the decision has been made to print the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire without a citizenship question, and that the printer has been instructed to begin the printing process," Department of Justice attorney Kate Bailey wrote in an email sent to groups challenging the question. 

However, in the days following, President Trump has continued to insist that the question must be included, and stated that he will continue looking to take measures towards having the question added. 

The damage is done
Despite the fact that as it stands, the citizenship question will not appear on the questionnaire, the several months of talk surrounding it has already created an environment where some immigrants feel skeptical and fearful about participating in the census, both at the local and national levels.

There exists some distrust that could very well seep into some of the population’s decision to not participate. 

“I think it’s very easy, in situations like this, to let our emotions get the best of us, and eat up the time that we have to do smart work,” said Reid. 

Philly Counts 2020 is the city’s widespread effort to increase understanding about the importance of the census, educate the public on how to participate and ensure responses from the public for a fair and accurate count. 

“We’re trying to stay really focused on our plan, despite what is a significant distraction right now,” Reid added. “I feel strongly that we have the ability to mitigate the damage by arming people with accurate information, and that’s what we’re planning to do in my office.”

On the national level, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) is playing their part, as well, particularly for the Latino population.

“While the legal battle over the citizenship question continues in the lower courts, we know this effort to undermine the progress of the Latino community and suppress the count of Latinos has left its mark on Census 2020,” NALEO’s Educational Fund CEO and Founder Arturo Vargas said to AL DÍA.

“Our work mobilizing the nation’s second largest population group remains more important than ever as we attempt to rebuild the trust that has been eroded over the course of this struggle,” he added. “Standing alongside our nation’s Latino leadership and partners, we will work to educate our community about this important development and make sure that every Latino is counted in the 2020 Census.”

Everyone should be, and want to be, counted in the census, immigrants included.

The Negative Impact of an Undercount
In addition to counting the population, the U.S. Census is conducted to determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the distribution of funds for local communities.

The Census Bureau states: “As mandated by the U.S. Constitution, our nation gets just one chance each decade to count its population.”

The census impacts everyone, which is why it’s so important for people to participate. 

“An undercount would hurt our entire community because it reduces resources,” Daniella Nahmias Scruggs, HIAS Pennsylvania Director of Development, told AL DÍA.

The larger the number of people who participate in the census, the more the community gets out of the $675 billion per year share in funding that gets spent on things such as schools, school lunch programs, hospitals, Medicaid, Medicare, roads, public works, and other vital programs. 

Businesses also use data from the census to decide where to build factories, offices, and stores, which in turn creates jobs and helps job growth. Census data is also used by developers to build new homes and revitalize old neighborhoods. Local governments use the census for public safety and emergency preparedness, while residents use the census to support community initiatives involving legislation, quality-of-life, and consumer advocacy.

In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that by 2045, the demographics of the nation would shift to where the U.S. would be “minority white.” 

This upcoming census is expected to begin showing that demographic shift. However, if large demographics of the population are opting not to participate due to fear, the final numbers won’t accurately reflect the nation’s real identity.

Looking Ahead to 2020 and Beyond 
Immigration reform will continue to be a focal point of the current administration, whether the question appears on the questionnaire or not. 

However, immigrants will also continue to be the main part of the fabric of the United States. The census cannot, and should not, be used as a tactic to disregard the immigrants who are in this country. 

“We believe in a country that reflects everyone,” said Scruggs.

A citizenship question on the census would do the direct opposite.

The census also should not be used as a tactic to boost political power, which seems to be one of the main motivations behind the push to add the question. 

In view of the new mechanisms used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to locate and detain immigrants, the incorporation of this question in this precise political moment leaves very little room for the benefit of the doubt in determining whether the information provided would be used to detain and deport immigrants.

On July 11, President Trump backed off of his request to add the citizenship question onto the census. He instead asked government agencies to find alternative means to determine the number of citizens and non-citizens in the country.

Earlier in the day, The Hill had revealed that the House will vote next week to hold Ross and U.S. Attorney General William Barr in criminal contempt of Congress for withholding information relating to the census. 

As the census citizenship question saga comes to an end with the questionnaire having begun the printing process, one thing is for sure: the battle against immigrants and non-citizens in the U.S. is still in full force.

It’s an ongoing battle that will likely produce more twists and turns over the next several months heading into 2020 and likely many years beyond.


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