Communities with large immigrant populations were already expressing fears about census privacy in 2017. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Concerns about confidentiality and immigration status were discovered months before the Department of Justice asked to add a question about citizenship.  

Back in November, a research scientist at the Census Bureau produced a report based on unusual findings in the field. Across a number of projects and “pretests” (or training exercises) conducted between February and September 2017, bureau researchers discovered that survey respondents who were asked questions during focus groups or sample tests were behaving in unexpected ways: They were giving false names or incorrect birthdates, leaving family members out of questionnaires, or abandoning interviews before they were finished.

Respondents were “spontaneously expressing concerns to researchers and field staff about confidentiality and data access relating to immigration.” The report was produced by the bureau’s Center for Survey Management for a meeting of the National Advisory Committee. Of particular concern: The report documented a rise in fear among respondents months before the prospect of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census was officially requested by the Department of Justice.

On March 26, the Department of Commerce confirmed that this citizenship question will indeed be a reality for the census, prompting fears among census experts, social scientists, and others that the integrity of the count could be undermined. Even if Congress was to take action to stop the question, as many opponents of the move hope, it may be too late to undo the distrust that is already taking hold in vulnerable communities.

Dated November 2017—a month before the DOJ request—the report cast its findings in terms of the 2020 Census specifically. Across languages and regions, researchers saw “an unprecedented ground swell in confidentiality and data sharing concerns, particularly among immigrants or those who live with immigrants.”

That represents a barrier to participation and data quality for the decennial count, with a disproportionate impact on hard-to-reach populations.

“There are serious questions about whether the Census Bureau will be able to fulfill its constitutional obligation to count everyone with this new question in place,” says Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. “The Census Bureau faces challenges with undercounting a lot of vulnerable groups in the first place. This question could make it virtually impossible for them to get a fair and accurate count in the 2020 Census.”

The Census Bureau revealed the new citizenship question’s format on Thursday. A footnote on the questionnaire notes that the question has been asked from 1890 to the present, but that information is misleading: A citizenship question last appeared on the decennial census in 1950. It has since appeared as part of the American Community Survey, an ongoing annual survey that’s also administered by the Census Bureau—one reason that critics say that the question is not necessary for a survey whose goal is to count everyone.

(Census Bureau)

“We have not asked a question about citizenship since the 1950 Census for good reason. We simply don’t need it,” Dutta-Gupta says. “We already ask the question to a random sample of households through the American Community Survey, which allows for people non-responding, because they might feel uncomfortable. We can re-weight that data and adjust it, based on the decennial census—which we hope we have gotten much closer to [correct], and is not just representative of the whole population but is actually a count of the whole population.”

For this census, the Census Bureau is counting on three innovations to bring down costs and close the gap among hard-to-count populations. The 2020 Census will enable two brand-new modes of response beyond the paper survey (online and by telephone). The bureau hopes that new digital and geospatial technology—from using satellite imagery to prepare the address lists to producing data with less friction using online surveys—will bring down the costs of conducting the census, or at least slow their dramatic rise.

But these innovations would all be for naught if immigrants or other vulnerable communities won’t respond to the survey because they distrust the government or fear the data could be used to punish undocumented family members, housemates, or neighbors. Dutta-Gupta notes that the citizenship question violates a public trust held since World War II, when the government used census data to help facilitate the internment of Japanese Americans. He says that the Trump administration’s actions could undo decades of work to restore and maintain that trust—the citizenship question notwithstanding.

“The Justice Department is claiming, breathtakingly, that this is intended to protect voting rights of vulnerable communities—when there is a culture and climate of xenophobia, hostility toward immigrants, large-scale deportations, intense immigration enforcement, arguably unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time,” he says. “It seems to me that they’re in many ways breaking with precedent of the last 60-plus years in instilling trust in the population of this country to secure the most accurate and fair count.”

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