In October, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss preparing for the 2020 Census.

In October, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss preparing for the 2020 Census. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Democrats Challenge Proposed Citizenship Question on 2020 Census

The Justice Department wants to track undocumented voters; immigrant groups warn of harm to count.

The Census Bureau is now addressing a politically fraught proposal from the Justice Department: Ask respondents to the 2020 census whether or not they are citizens.

The proposal, which has upset civil rights and census advocacy groups, was sent on Dec. 12 from Arthur Gary, general counsel at the Justice Management Division, to acting Census Director Ron Jarmin. Gary maintains that the data is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act by providing the department with a reliable count of voters in locations where violations are suspected.

Gary noted that such a question had been included in previous national decennial questionnaires from 1970 to 2000.

After ProPublica broke the story Dec. 29, spokesman Michael Cook told the New York Times on Monday that a complete and accurate census remains “one of our top priorities.”

On Thursday, two House Democrats who work on Census and Justice issues wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asking him to reject the proposal, calling it “a dangerous and reckless move.”

“This is just the latest effort to drive immigrants back into the shadows,” wrote Reps. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y, both members of the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations panel. “The Justice Department’s proposal to include a question asking individuals’ citizenship status is very troubling given its previous efforts to undermine the count and anti-immigrant policy record. Asking for individuals’ citizenship status, while seemingly menial and harmless, will only discourage immigrant families from filling out the form for fear of being targeted for deportation.”

The lawmakers also warned that the March deadline for presenting the final 2020 Census questions to Congress gives too little time for testing a citizenship question. They noted that no request for such a question came from the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. The bureau itself in a presentation of research this November noted an increase in respondents who spontaneously expressed concerns about confidentiality and data access relating to immigration.

A Census spokeswoman on Thursday told Government Executive the bureau is evaluating the request and “will process it in the same way we have historically dealt with such requests. The final list of questions must be submitted to Congress by March 31. Secretary Ross will then make a decision. Our top priority is a complete and accurate 2020 Census.”

The controversy comes at a time when Congress is struggling to meet a Jan. 19 deadline for funding the government for fiscal 2018, including a Census budget that critics fear is already insufficient to handle the next big count just two years away.

Census has been under fire for years from Republicans who object to alleged paperwork burdens from the bureau’s American Community Survey. Congress has also flatlined the bureau’s budget, though Secretary Ross this fall asked for an increase of $187 million. The final amount awaits Congress’s action this month.

Census Bureau Director John Thompson resigned last June at a time of crucial preparations for the 2020 count, denying any motives of protest or political disagreements. And the bureau’s problems with technology and cost overruns have kept it on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list.

The Trump administration’s approach to the census raised some fears among voting rights advocates when news organizations reported speculation that the White House was planning to name Thomas Brunell to the bureau’s operational No. 2 slot. Brunell, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas, has written on the need for congressional redistricting reform, which depends heavily on the census. Brunell’s lack of government experience, opined the conservative National Review, is a more legitimate reason to oppose his appointment than his academic writing, which, the magazine, said, would not permit Trump to “rig” elections.

Currently, agency veteran Enrique Lamas is performing the deputy role at census on an acting basis.

Protesting the low budgets at census are 21 major business groups that in November signed a letter saying the House- and Senate-proposed appropriations of around $1.5 billion were not enough.

Resistance to the proposal to restore the citizenship question came from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which argued that the move would harm accuracy and discard years of research. “This request—coming almost a year after the Census Bureau has finalized topics for the 2020 Census, as required by law—suggests that at least some in the administration are trying to jeopardize the accuracy of the 2020 Census in every state and every community by deterring many people from responding, making the data collected in this crucial once-a-decade operation less accurate and useful for all of us,” said director Vanita Gupta, formerly of the Obama administration Justice Department.

Phil Sparks, spokesman and co-director for the nonprofit Census Project, which advocates for investing in the census, made a similar case to Government Executive. “Operationally, it takes years to successfully test decennial questions for effect and the final large scale field test in Providence, Rhode Island, of census-counting techniques begins in April—obviously not enough time to assess the impact of a citizenship question by adding it to the test survey,” he said. Besides reducing participation rates among Latinos and other immigrant communities, he said, the move would cause “a political earthquake” during the 2021 reapportionment (based on the 2020 Census) in such states as California and Texas.