Only in the U.S. Is It Controversial for the Census to Ask About Citizenship

COMMENTARY Immigration

Only in the U.S. Is It Controversial for the Census to Ask About Citizenship

Mar 30th, 2018 5 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Hans A. von Spakovsky

Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow

Hans von Spakovsky is an authority on a wide range of issues – including civil rights, civil justice, the First Amendment, immigration.
An attendee holds her new country's flag and her naturalization papers as she is sworn in during a U.S. citizenship ceremony in Los Angeles. Mike Blake/REUTERS/Newscom

Key Takeaways

The public should applaud the Trump administration and the Commerce Department for reinstating a citizenship question on the 2020 census form.

The Commerce Department consulted with so-called “stakeholders” who opposed adding the citizenship question before it made its decision.

The public has a right to expect that the government will do everything in its power to get as accurate a picture as possible of the American body politic.

The public should applaud the Trump administration and the Commerce Department for reinstating a citizenship question on the 2020 census form. Despite the howls of hysterical protests coming from political partisans, this is long overdue and in accord with historical practice.

The Constitution requires an “actual Enumeration” every decade, and the priority of the census, as outlined by Karen Dunn Kelley, the under secretary for Economic Affairs at the Commerce Department in her March 26 announcement, is “obtaining complete and accurate data.” That data is used for everything from enforcement of the Voting Rights Act to the distribution of federal funding.

We have also been in the midst of a contentious debate for more than a decade about immigration. To have an informed debate, shouldn’t we have accurate information about the citizen/noncitizen population of the country? In fact, even the United Nations recommends that its member countries ask a citizenship question on their census surveys, and countries ranging from Australia to Germany to Indonesia all ask this question. Only in the U.S. is this considered at all controversial — and it shouldn’t be.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who claim this is “irresponsible” and “unconstitutional,” show their lack of understanding of both the history of the census and the Constitution. President Thomas Jefferson first proposed a citizenship question in 1800. It was added to the census in 1820 with a question that asked for the number of “foreigners not naturalized” in the household. As Kelley points out, prior decennial census surveys “consistently asked citizenship questions up until 1950.”

When the census switched to sending out two different census forms, the short form and the long form, the long form (which went to one out of every six households) contained a citizenship question as demonstrated by the 2000 form.

The long form was discontinued after the 2000 census and replaced with the American Community Survey. The U.S. Census Bureau sends out the ACS “on a rotating basis through the decade,” but it goes to only one in 38 households, according to the Census Bureau, which uses it to provide only “estimates of demographic” characteristics. It contains a citizenship question — which neither Holder nor Becerra has ever complained about. Holder certainly did not act to stop its use when he was the attorney general. But using the very limited ACS data is problematical because it is “extrapolated based on sample surveys,” according to Kelley.

The Commerce Department consulted with so-called “stakeholders” who opposed adding the citizenship question before it made its decision. As Kelly pointed out, however, many of the opponents did not know “that the question had been asked in some form or another for nearly 200 years.” They were also apparently not aware of the accuracy problems with the very limited ACS survey.

Those who say the response rate will go down because illegal aliens will fear filling out the form obviously haven’t looked at the citizenship question that is currently used by the ACS, which is exactly the same question that Commerce says will be added to the 2020 Census form. It only asks whether the respondent is a citizen, not his legal status. The ACS has far more intrusive questions regarding personal finances and other aspects of peoples’ lives that are far more objectionable and likely to cause recipients to not respond to the Census Bureau.

Neither the Census Bureau nor any of those opposed to this change were able to provide the Commerce Department with any evidence that the response rate would decline if the citizenship question was added back into the regular form. A former deputy director of the census who is now at the Nielsen polling firm told Commerce that there is no such “empirical data” to support that claim. Furthermore, when Nielsen has added such questions to its surveys, it has seen no “appreciable decrease in response rates.” And there is no evidence this has seriously impeded responses to the ACS.

As Kelley correctly says, “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.” Not completing the census form is actually a violation of federal law.

As for constitutionality, Art. I, Sec. 2, Cl. 3 gives the power to conduct the “enumeration,” or census, to Congress, not the states. Congress has delegated the power to “determine the inquiries” on the census “questionnaires” to the Secretary of the Department of Commerce and the states have no say over those questions. The claim that asking a citizenship question — which has been done consistently for 200 years either in the decennial census or other surveys — is unconstitutional is without merit.

When the Census Bureau conducts the 2020 census, the public has a right to expect that the government will do everything in its power to get as accurate a picture as possible of the American body politic. That includes, as Thomas Jefferson recommended, knowing how many citizens and noncitizens make up our democratic republic.

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Examiner