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Critics Attack 2020 Census Question On Citizenship Status


There's a small but very significant change coming to the 2020 census. The Commerce Department, which oversees the census, says the questionnaire will ask people about their citizenship, and that has some people very worried. California's state attorney general is filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration to try and stop the question from being added. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers demographics. He's with us now from New York.

Good morning, Hansi.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So why is a question about citizenship being added to the 2020 census?

WANG: Well, the Justice Department sent in a request. They said they needed a better count of citizens old enough to vote in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act and, specifically, protections against racial discrimination in voting. But after the Justice Department put out this request in December, which has now been approved by the Commerce Department, many civil rights groups questioned that reasoning because they said the government has used estimates of how many citizens are in the U.S. ever since the Voting Rights Act was enacted. And so these civil rights groups are questioning, you know, is this really a cover to make sure that noncitizens are not counted in the 2020 census, which has direct implications on representation in Congress and on federal funding?

KING: So let's just draw that out a little. The assumption, I guess, is that people who are not U.S. citizens would not want to answer the census, would not want to take the questionnaire.

WANG: That is the theory. And also that's combined with what the Census Bureau has been encountering for decades, which is a growing reluctance from the American public of giving up personal information to the federal government.

KING: California's state attorney general is suing to stop that question from being asked on the form. What laws does he say it would violate to ask people about their citizenship?

WANG: Well, California's state's attorney general says that it would violate the Constitution because one of the few instructions in the Constitution is for the government to do an actual enumeration or a head count every 10 years. And he says that adding a citizenship question would likely discourage immigrants and their relatives from participating. In California, that's a really big deal because it's a state with the largest immigrant population. And so this would really undermine the government's ability to conduct a full enumeration, a full head count.

He also says that - his complaint also says, rather, that adding a citizenship question would violate what's known as an administrative procedure act. Essentially, it's a law that prohibits federal agencies from taking actions that are arbitrary and capricious. And the argument is that if there is an undercount, that would really undermine the reasoning for adding a citizenship question because there would be inaccurate data for enforcing the Voting Rights Act. And also the timing of the Justice Department's request, that was noted in this complaint. It came nine months after the Census Bureau finalized its question topics for the 2020 census.

KING: Has the U.S. census asks about citizenship in the past?

WANG: Yes. This is not a new topic. Smaller Census Bureau surveys, including this survey known as the American Community Survey, ask about citizenship every year, actually. But it's only to 1 in 38 households, and the last time the census asked all U.S. households about citizenship, that was back in 1950. So this would be a very big change.

KING: Quickly, Hansi, you've been following a trial run of the census being conducted in Rhode Island. What are people saying there about the citizenship question?

WANG: One thing to note is that in Providence County, R.I., there is no citizenship question on this test questionnaire because the requests came in so late. But many of the immigrant advocates, many of the immigrants I spoke to, said they're worried and are thinking about not participating.

KING: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks, Hansi.

WANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.