The Full Story of How the Citizenship Question Set the 2020 Census on a Dangerous Path

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Trump administration announced plans to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census. The last minute action that came just before the end of March deadline for adding new questions overruled career officials at the Census Bureau galvanized concerns (New York Times) about the accuracy of the 2020 Census and politicization of the process. Six former Census Bureau diectors advised against the action (Time).

MCF responded to the administration’s action in a KARE interview questioning the public’s interest in having to provide information to the federal government though the census for which there is not an essential purpose. The rationale for adding the question was a request from Attorney General Sessions to have the added in order to improve enforcement of the voting rights act. Historically, the Department of Justice has used information gathered through the American Community Survey.  The New York Times called the argument “disingenuous.” Also noted in the KARE-11 interview was the harm experienced by everyone when census participation is discouraged.  

MCF advanced concerns about the affect the question would have on depressing participation, particularly in households where citizenship status is in process or unresolved and in communities of color. (Star Tribune)  As noted in MPR coverage, "The fast growing Asian community in Minnesota would be undercounted with a citizenship status question. People are worried about how the government will be utilizing the data, and some people have come from countries where the government has targeted them and that causes some concern in the community. “ Bo Thao-Urabe, the executive director for Minnesota's Coalition of Asian American Leaders. Thao-Urabe also noted the majority of the new community members are refugees. Some may not qualify for citizenship yet."

NBC News analysis suggested there was political motivation, and saw the change as an attempt by the administration “to reframe the census to fit his (Trump’s) definition of America.”  They also projected the political impact. The Star Tribune saw the same intent and responding in an editorial chiding the administration for politicizing the census.  For many, it was clear the week before the Commerce Secretary make his recommendation when a Trump campaign fundraising letter was sent out linking support for the citizenship question to support and contributing to the Trump 2020 campaign. The New York Times concluded, "By now, many people have come to expect that Mr. Trump will inject politics into every decision. But even by this administration’s low standards, trifling with the census, which is required by the Constitution and is a foundation of American democracy, represents a serious breach of trust."

The White House pushed back as reported by National Review, suggesting this was no big deal and that the question has been part of the census since 1965, except for the 2010 census. Not true.  NPR and other media fact checked the White House claim. The question was dropped after the 1950 census. 

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