On Tuesday, May 8, officials from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce will testify before Congress and attempt to justify adding the question of citizenship back into the census for the first time since the 1950s. Lawmakers shouldn’t fall for it.
The census, which is conducted every ten years, helps determines everything from the number of Congressional districts to school funding to Medicaid budgets and more. Adding a citizenship question amidst a toxic political environment for immigrants all but ensures an undercount of some of our most vulnerable neighbors and their children.
While the Census Bureau argues it needs citizenship numbers to enforce the Voting Rights Act, information on citizenship is already collected annually in the American Community Survey. Multiple elected officials and attorneys general from around the country contend the addition of the question to the census is unconstitutional, fundamentally discriminatory and would undermine the possibility of a fair and accurate census. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, along with 18 states and six cities, filed a lawsuit against the Census Bureau and Commerce Department to have the question removed.
Asking people to volunteer their citizenship status to a federal agency will undoubtedly deter people from participating in the census for fear of deportation, hostility in their communities, or worse—especially at a time when immigrants are under consistent attack by the president and his administration. If the point of the census is to get an accurate count of people living in the United States, it is both unethical and counterproductive for the Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau to move forward with this line of questioning.
As this issue is litigated in the courts and before Congress, we should revisit why the census is conducted every 10 years in the first place. The census is the mechanism which determines how many seats each state has in Congress (states with fewer people have fewer representatives, and so on), and how federal funds are distributed among local communities. This means if a city, town or county is underrepresented in the 2020 census, those communities will receive insufficient federal funding for schools, afterschool programs and other critical social services for years to come. It’s also worth noting that census data is a key way by which nonprofits, including foundations, understand the needs in the communities they serve. We can’t afford inaccurate results. Every person must be accounted for.
Adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census threatens to further disenfranchise communities that are already disadvantaged—and students and young people who rely on public transportation, school lunches and summer meals, are especially vulnerable. We can’t allow this to happen. Congress should reject the citizenship question to ensure a fair and accurate census in 2020. The future of our communities—and our kids—depends on it.