Don’t answer the citizenship question in 2020

The Commerce Department recently announced that the federal administration is going to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census despite the objections of the US Census Bureau. The question has not been properly field-tested and the New York Times Editorial Board has called the move a blatant attempt by the federal administration to suppress immigrant and minority participation in the census.

Count suppression hurts all of us, citizens and non-citizens alike, so I’m not going to answer the citizenship question on the 2020 census, and I hope you won’t either. Let’s send a message to Washington D.C. that we object to the politicization of the census by refusing to answer the citizenship question.

The census is required by the Constitution every 10 years to get an “actual Enumeration” of the “number of free persons” in each state, and that data is used to reapportion representation and is the basis for federal funding based on population. Elected officials should want every single person, whatever their citizenship status, to respond to the census so that cities, counties and states can be properly and fairly accounted for by federal agencies. Census figures determine how communities will grow and thrive in the coming decade.

As a member of the National League of Cities’ Finance, Administration and Intergovernmental Relations advocacy committee, I was briefed by Mr. Burton Reist of the US Census Bureau at a conference in Washington D.C. on March 11, 2018. Mr. Reist was very clear that the staff of the Census Bureau did not want the citizenship question included on the 2020 census because it has not been properly normed or field-tested. From a technical perspective, the citizenship questions inclusion on the 2020 census is invalid. But there is a count suppression effect as well. In fact, in September, 2017 the Census Bureau’s own field workers began reporting that immigrants in all categories were becoming less willing to participate in government surveys due to a perception that the federal government was anti-immigrant and fear that the government would misuse personal data. The census information is only as good as the public’s willingness to participate, and the NLC’s FAIR committee advocated strenuously for the citizenship question not to be included in the 2020 census.

There are many ways, both overt and subtle, for governments to marginalize and intimidate people. While many of us may profess not to understand why anyone would hesitate to participate in a government survey, I can assure you that the phenomenon is real. Fear of how the data will be used and a reticence to expose oneself to a hostile bureaucracy are real drivers of human behavior. Let me share a personal example with you. I was a legal immigrant in Ecuador from 1994 to 2009. I had all my papers in order, worked legally, gave birth to three dual-citizen children with my Ecuadorian husband, paid my taxes and contributed to the community as a teacher and volunteer. Each year, I had to travel into the capital to a special police office to be counted. Only non-citizens were required to make this trek, have this interview, report their address to the authorities, have paperwork reviewed again and again and then sent on their way. There was no reason for this special treatment except to make sure non-citizens like me knew they were being watched and to intimidate me. It worked.

It scared me every single time I had to do it, and I quickly learned to avoid contact with the police and government offices because of the extra scrutiny.

So while the NLC’s objection to the citizenship question is technical and scientific, my personal objection is ethical. I object to anyone, whatever their citizenship status, being singled out in any way during the census. There is no justification whatsoever to make anyone residing in this country hesitant, nervous or confused in any way during an important national exercise. The constitutional mandate is clear – to count people. Every other piece of information is extraneous, and any question which might lead to an undercount is a violation of the values of American society.

The federal government has been using other statistically valid methods to determine citizenship numbers for over 60 years. There’s no reason to do anything differently now. Return your census form. Be counted, but don’t answer the citizenship question on the 2020 census.


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