California is suing to keep a citizenship question off the 2020 census

A map shows the locations of the U.S. Census Bureau's regional offices for the 2020 census.
A map shows the locations of the U.S. Census Bureau's regional offices for the 2020 census.
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The U.S. Commerce Department announced late Monday that it will restore a question about citizenship to the 2020 census questionnaire.

In an eight-page memo Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says the Justice Department has requested that the census ask who is a citizen in order to help determine possible violations of the Voting Rights Act, to help enforce that law.

NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reported on "All Things Considered" why the move is so controversial.

"A lot of census watchers, former census bureau directors, other census experts have said that they are very, very concerned that there already is a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, that already folks are very concerned about giving personal information to the federal government, that now if there is a citizenship question added as the Commerce Department is announcing that ... a lot of immigrants, not only those who are undocumented, but anyone who maybe has ties to folks who are undocumented, may not want to ... participate in the census and therefore they would not be counted, and that has direct impacts on how people are represented in this country.

"All census numbers are used to reapportion seats in Congress, specifically the House of Representatives, and also these numbers have an impact on how billions of dollars are distributed around the country ... from the federal level all the way down to the local level of how school districts figure out how to divide up resources. So this could have a really big impact if immigrants are not participating in the census in 2020."

This sentiment was echoed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in an interview with KPCC.

"It makes an enormous difference if you're a state the size of California that has a large population of non-citizen residents who are immigrants, who these days, under a Trump administration which has been very hostile, have become afraid to reach out in any way to the federal government," Becerra said.

He added that it would cause serious damage to state programs, posing a cost to the state "easily in the billions."

"Whether it's the money that we use to decide how many kids we have in our classrooms, the money we use to fund natural disasters, the money we use to build roads and highways — and if we're being shortchanged money because the federal government says we have fewer people than we really do, every community loses — not just the people who don't submit the questionnaire," Becerra said.

The last time a question about citizenship was included in the census questionnaire was 1950. Such a question is posed in the annual American Community Survey which covers about 3.5 million people.

Becerra announced his office has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over its decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Bacerra tweet

"California simply has too much to lose for us to allow the Trump Administration to botch this important decennial obligation.," Becerra said in a statement. "What the Trump Administration is requesting is not just alarming, it is an unconstitutional attempt to discourage an accurate census count."

In a Tuesday morning press conference with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Becerra said the predicted undercounting "would jeopardize vital services for all Californians," as well as government representation.

"Questioning the citizenship status of every person in America is unfortunately just a continuation of the president's blatant agenda to fan the flames of anti-immigrant hostility," Padilla said. "California counts on immigrants. And in the 2020 census, we will make sure immigrants are counted, not intimidated."

"When we lose funding, when we lose congressional representation, we lose big if Trump is successful in adding this question," Padilla added. "So we're going to fight it tooth and nail. "

Newly naturalized U.S citizens complete voter registration forms in Bethel Park, Pa., in November 2017. The 2020 census will ask respondents whether they are citizens.
Newly naturalized U.S citizens complete voter registration forms in Bethel Park, Pa., in November 2017. The 2020 census will ask respondents whether they are citizens.
Keith Srakocic/AP

Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York issued a statement: "I am deeply disappointed with Secretary Ross, and I will now look to introduce legislation to stop this question from being included on the census."

As Hansi reported in January, civil rights groups dispute the Justice Department's need for the data from a citizenship question to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

In his memo, Ross rejected arguments that asking about citizenship will dampen the likelihood that undocumented residents will choose not to be counted for fear that their personal information could be used for law enforcement purposes.

"The reinstatement of a citizenship question will not decrease the response rate of residents who already decided not to respond. And no one provided evidence that there are residents who would respond accurately to a decennial census that did not contain a citizenship question but would not respond if it did (although many believed that such residents had to exist). While it is possible this belief is true, there is no information available to determine the number of people who would in fact not respond due to a citizenship question being added, and no one has identified any mechanism for making such a determination."

He concluded saying that in order to minimize an impact on census response rates, "I am directing the Census Bureau to place the citizenship question last on the decennial census form."

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