Chicago has shed more population than any other U.S. metro area, according to Census data. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Critics fear that the change will discourage immigrant participation in the 2020 count and lead to undercounting.

The 2020 census will include a controversial question about citizenship, an addition that has sparked fears of a widespread undercount among communities that are already difficult to reach. Wilbur Ross, the secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, announced the decision in a memo to the Department of Justice, which requested the question in December.

Critics worry that this change will prompt immigrant residents—even those in the country legally—to avoid participating in the 2020 census, out of fear that it could expose them or their loved ones to deportation. An undercount could have dramatic political consequences, both locally and nationally: Census population figures underpin the apportioning of congressional districts and representation and determine how more than $600 billion in federal funds are divvied up every year.

Former Census Bureau director John Thompson, who resigned from his post in May and has still not yet been replaced, called the action “disappointing.” He told CityLab that he disagrees with the analysis put forward in Ross’s memo. Changes to the questionnaire are typically subject to rigorous testing, evaluation, and documentation, he says—steps skipped over in this decision. “[Ross] seems to conclude that in the absence of evidence that there would be a drop in response that it’s appropriate to ask the question,” Thompson said. “I’m of the opinion that, where we are today, there is a significant risk that there will be an undercount.”

In the memo, Ross grounded the need for a citizenship question in concerns about voting rights. The Department of Justice has argued that having data for the citizenship voting age population at the census-tract level will make it easier for the agency to prevent voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race or other protected categories.

But that argument drew quick fire from civil rights groups. “The Commerce Department claims the citizenship question is needed to help with Voting Rights Act enforcement,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “However, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act has virtually come to a grinding halt.”

In a statement, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, echoed that sentiment. “The president’s support for this unnecessary, untested question is just one more example of this administration’s hostility toward immigrants and people of color,” she said.

A legal battle against the move has quickly taken shape. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that he will file a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the question. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will lead a different lawsuit coordinating the efforts of several states.

Among conservative groups, however, there’s more enthusiasm for the change. The Heritage Foundation supports the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, because it reaches more households than the American Community Survey, which currently collects citizenship data. Kris Kobach—the Kansas secretary of state who headed up the Trump administration’s Commission on Election Integrity and supports a Muslim registry—argues that non-citizens should be excluded from consideration for congressional apportionment.

Concerns about the 2020 census predate the request by the Department of Justice to add a citizenship question for the first time since 1950. Soaring costs for the count, plus the growth and complexity of the population, led the Government Accountability Office last year to grade the 2020 census as a high risk of failure. Earlier this month, the Public Policy Institute of California determined that 75 percent of that state’s population fall under one or more categories of people who are hard to count—more than 30 million people. Immigrants, minorities, single-parent households headed up by women, and young mobile adults are among those who are hardest for the census to reach, according to Teri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former staff director for the U.S. House Census & Population Subcommittee. Similar fears of a major undercount have emerged in Texas, home of some 5 million immigrant residents.  

“[The Census] is not an equal-opportunity enumeration,” Lowenthal said during a panel at Georgetown Law School last week. “The Census does not count all population groups equally well. People of color are missed at disproportionately high rates. Low-income households in both urban and rural areas are missed at higher rates—while non-Hispanic whites and higher-income households were overcounted in the 2010 Census.”

Undercount fears notwithstanding, this latest change bucks longstanding census tradition. While the Commerce Secretary has the authority to oversee changes to the census, it usually follows a specific and well-documented path. Testing a change to the census questionnaire can take months or years, work that flows through the Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy, which is co-chaired by the director of the Census Bureau and the U.S. chief statistician (a post within the Office of Management and Budget).

For example, in recent years the Census Bureau looked at the possibility of dissolving questions about race and ethnicity as distinct items. That process took two years and resulted in no change.

Thompson warns that an undercount in 2020 will compound in future data surveys. Virtually every data collection effort in the U.S. regarding households or people uses data provided through the decennial count as a control. “If there’s an undercount in the census, that undercount affects not just apportionment, not just redistricting or fund allocation. It also affects the way data is collected and analyzed for 10 years,” he said.

There is, however, a legislative check on changes to the census. Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution lists “the actual Enumeration” as a responsibility of Congress. Representative Grace Meng of New York has already said that she will introduce legislation to block the citizenship question.

“Congress should immediately convene hearings to do what the Commerce Department failed to do—truly evaluate the impact that the citizenship questions will have in terms of depressing minority and immigrant community participation,” Clarke said.

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