Decision to Add Citizenship Question in 2020 Census Met with Swift Outcry, Lawsuit

By Alfonso Serrano Mar 27, 2018

The Department of Commerce announced yesterday (March 26) that the 2020 Census will include a controversial question about citizenship status, a move that sparked indignation from Democrats and prompted California to sue the Trump administration, arguing that the decision violates the U.S. Constitution.

"Having citizenship data at the Census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the [Voting Rights Act], and Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts," the Department of Commerce said in a statement. Read the department’s memo to the U.S. Census Bureau here.

But those "adverse" effects will be substantial, warned critics, who say that immigrants of undocumented status who fear reprisals will sidestep the 2020 Census altogether, resulting in a drastic undercount of the population. 

That, in turn, will affect the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding to states and cities. The inaccurate data will also be used to determine the redistricting of the House of Representatives and state legislatures.

"In no uncertain terms, we condemn Secretary Ross’s decision to incorporate an 11th hour citizenship question in the 2020 Census," Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. "This is a clear attempt to politicize the process by discouraging minority communities and immigrant communities from participating in the count. This decision comes at a time when we have seen xenophobic and anti-immigrant policy positions from this administration."

California, which has a large immigrant population, also denounced the decision as a way to disuade immigrants from participating. On Monday night, Attorney General Xavier Bercerra sued the Trump administration, arguing that the move is "illegal."

In an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, Bercerra and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said the citizenship question is an "insidious" attempt to discourage noncitizens from responding.

"This request is an extraordinary attempt by the Trump administration to hijack the 2020 census for political purposes," they wrote. "Since the first day of his presidential campaign and through his first year in office, President Trump has targeted immigrants: vilifying them and attempting to exclude them from the country."

An undercount in the 2020 Census could hit California especially hard, resulting in billions of dollars in lost federal funding and the loss of one of the state’s 53 seats in the House, according to reports.

Eric Holder, the former attorney general under President Barack Obama who now chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, also threatened to sue the Trump administration.

Monday’s decision did not come as a surprise. The department requested the citizenship question in December, according to ProPublica. Steve Jost, a former high-ranking official during the 2010 Census, told the publication at the time: "People are not going to come out to be counted because they’re going to be fearful the information would be used for negative purposes. This line about enforcing voting rights is a new and scary twist."