Citizenship question on 2020 census a 'surveillance system,' critics say


Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: Shutterstock/census.gov

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the Trump administration’s plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, but experts believe its addition would have dire consequences for communities with large numbers of immigrants.

“This question also could set off a lot of insecurities and distrust that certain populations have currently of the U.S. government,” Jennifer Van Hook, a sociology and demography professor at Pennsylvania State University, told Yahoo News. “Because it sounds like somebody’s looking into their citizenship, wondering if they belong in the United States, raising fears that the information they provide to the census could then be passed along to law enforcement agencies or ICE, and then be used to either target them or people that they know in their community.”

The census hasn’t asked about citizenship since 1950, but as of last week, the Supreme Court will decide whether the 2020 census will include the question “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

In January, about five months ahead of this summer’s printing deadline, Manhattan District Judge Jesse Furman ordered the Department of Commerce to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 census, adding that it was “unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons.” But when the Trump administration filed an appeal and requested that the Supreme Court weigh in on a dispute about evidence, the high court stepped in, bypassing what would likely have been a lengthy federal appeals court process.

Van Hook believes the question has no place in the census.

“The decennial census is not designed to collect information about the composition of the population. The chief focus is to get a head count of the population,” Van Hook said. “We have other surveys to collect information about the characteristics of the population, including citizenship status.”

The idea of including a citizenship question has long been controversial.

When Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, announced last March that the citizenship question would be added to the census, there was an immediate outcry. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit against Ross and the Department of Commerce.

For over 200 years, the decennial head count of every person living in the U.S. — citizens and noncitizens — has helped states determine how funds, now hundreds of billions of dollars, are allocated according to population size. The 2020 census, which begins on April 1 of next year and ends that summer, before congressional reapportionment and redistricting, also helps determine the allocation of House of Representatives seats and Electoral College votes.

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