The Department of Commerce announced Monday that a question asking people their citizenship status will be added to the 2020 census. It’s a decision that may have big impacts for Texas’ more than 28 million residents.
This was prompted by a request in December of 2017 by the Department of Justice to reinstate the citizenship question.
The Commerce Department noted in a release that between 1820 and 1950, almost every 10-year census asked some version of a citizenship question.
The DOJ believes that doing so will provide “census block level citizenship voting age population (CVAP) data that is not currently available from government surveys.”
The idea is to allow the DOJ and courts to use the voting age population data to enforce laws that would protect minority voting rights.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said after reviewing the DOJ’s wishes, he believes any negative impacts of adding this question would be outweighed by the benefits of getting accurate details of the citizenship voting age population. Ross added that to minimize impact of the citizenship question, it will be placed last on the census.
Both federal and state players are aware: accurate information from this census data matters because a lot of government decisions and funding are hinged upon census numbers.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz was part of a group of politicians who sent a letter asking the Department of Commerce to add the question to get a better idea of the number of U.S. citizens living in the country.
“I applaud Secretary Ross for honoring this request by my colleagues and me,” Sen. Cruz said. “It is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable, given the wide-ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy. A question on citizenship is a reasonable, common sense addition to the census.”
However, many researchers and people who work with census numbers are speaking out in opposition to the decision. The complaint they echo is especially in a state like Texas with a large immigrant and undocumented population, asking about citizenship may scare people away from taking the census in the first place.
“Particularly in the current political climate, why would one answer a question like that?” wondered Leticia Marteleto, an associate professor of sociology at UT Austin.
Marteleto uses census data in her research and has also been involved in collecting census data. She said it already takes a lot of effort, skill and science to get people to respond to the census, she worries the additional citizenship question would make it even more difficult to get responses from immigrants.
As a scholar, she also worries about the long-term impacts of gathering what could turn out to be incomplete data.
“And we are gonna have to stick with this data for a decade and so this is very problematic again particularly in the current political climate regarding immigration, particularly in the state of Texas,” she said.
Marteleto explained that years of planning go into preparing questions for the census, she worries adding this question only a year and a half ahead of time will not leave enough opportunity to test out its potential impacts.
Peck Young, who has been studying Texas Census responses and data for decades, also believes the question will have a chilling effect on non-citizens participating in the census. Currently, he directs Austin Community College’s Center of Public Policy and Political Studies.
“Right here in Central Texas, what you’re gonna do is lose money, because money comes into this state based on how many people you have,” Young said. “If you have people who don’t participate in major numbers, you’re not gonna be able to apply for as much funding for schools, for transportation, for all kinds of major funding.”
He worries that local taxpayers will be left to pick up the slack on those discrepancies in funding.
“If you say you have 80,000 kids to educate and you really have 90, the feds are not gonna give you money for kids they don’t have on your census, and neither is the state of Texas,” Young said.
Some who’ve worked on taking census results have concerns about the added question as well.
“I don’t really think it is a good idea to add the citizenship question to the mix,” said Adam Stobart, who worked on the 2010 census following up with people in Austin who hadn’t responded. “The census is strictly about getting a count of people and once you are introducing a sensitive question like citizenship status into the mix you will make it harder to get responses from people.”
Stobart noted that in 2010 most people he talked to would answer the questions. He said that those who refused were most often uncomfortable having their information shared with another government entity.
Nestor Rodriguez, also a professor of sociology at UT Austin, worked with the Census Bureau in 1990 to research how many undocumented immigrants did not respond to the census.
“We found something like half the undocumented [individuals] didn’t respond to the census,” Rodriguez recalled. He added that many didn’t respond because they were afraid of revealing their identity to the government. But there was also a wide range of other reasons why they didn’t respond: some didn’t want their landlord to know they were living in the apartment, others worked late at night, still others said they requested a Spanish version of the census but it never arrived.
He explained that as a demographer, having more information about citizenship status could have value as another variable to look at in research. But he acknowledged that the question may very well intimidate people.
“Since deportations are already high up on the radar screen it could intimidate some people if the rumor mill gets really active,” Rodriguez said.
So what does Rodriguez think it will get to get those without citizenship status to respond in 2020?
“Encouragement by the public sector and all kinds of organizations out there, radio stations, newspapers, television stations to encourage people to participate,” he said.