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Ross: 2020 Census Will Ask About Citizenship Status

Commerce Department made announcement late Monday, despite outcry from Democrats

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross blamed the market plunge on an overreaction to the tariff announcement. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross blamed the market plunge on an overreaction to the tariff announcement. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Commerce Department has agreed to a request from the Justice Department to include a citizenship status question on the 2020 Census.

Commerce made the announcement late Monday, saying that the question would line up with the language used the American Community Survey.

“Citizenship questions have also been included on prior decennial censuses. Between 1820 and 1950, almost every decennial census asked a question on citizenship in some form,” the Commerce Department said in its announcement.

Critics suggest the revival of a citizenship question could undermine the proper count in minority communities, particularly in those with large populations of undocumented immigrants.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, has already introduced a bill with Democratic co-sponsors that would block the Census Bureau from asking a question about citizenship status.

“The federal census is NOT a tool to rally the President’s base,” Menendez said in a statement last week. “It is a constitutionally mandated count of every single person living in this country — no matter where they’re from or how they got here. It’s incredible that we even have to consider legislation to prevent this administration from politicizing the census with his anti-immigrant sentiments and polluting the redistricting process to bend it towards his party.”

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a longtime leader among House Democrats on oversight of the Census Bureau, introduced a similar measure in the House.

“This bill will protect the integrity of the census, our nation’s largest peacetime undertaking, by making sure that topics and questions included in the census are properly vetted and not added at the last minute — endangering the accuracy of the census, response rates, and cost to the taxpayer,” the New York Democrat said. “We cannot accept an incomplete or unfair count in 2020 — too much is at stake. The data from the census affects the way federal and state funds are distributed and district lines are drawn, and helps businesses grow and non-profits better serve their communities.”

The Commerce Department said it was making the change, which must be presented to Congress on the final questionnaire by the end of the month, to help the Justice Department’s efforts to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

“Importantly, the Department’s review found that limited empirical evidence exists about whether adding a citizenship question would decrease response rates materially. Concerns about decreased response rates generally fell into the following two categories — distrust of government and increased burden,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wrote in a memo outlining his decision.

The Census is always a key political issue because of its effect on apportionment of House seats and the related distribution of Electoral College votes.

Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York, was frustrated last week when she received what she described as incomplete answers from Ross about the Census questionnaire during a House Appropriations subcomittee hearing.

“Adding a question about citizenship status would be reckless and misguided. It would lower response rates from those in immigrant communities, make the census more expensive, and add further complications to an already underfunded and underprepared Census Bureau,” she said. “There is too much is at stake to risk an inaccurate count.”

Ross wrote that the ultimately decided the need for accurate data for Justice Department VRA purposes outweighed potential increased costs or  other reduced response rate issues.

“Completing and returning decennial census questionnaires is required by Federal law, those responses are protected by law, and inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census will provide more complete information for those who respond,” Ross wrote. “The citizenship data provided to DOJ will be more accurate with the question than without it, which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond.”

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Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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