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Census citizenship question could create fear for Madison immigrants, lead to undercount

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The most recent Census Bureau research from June found that the citizenship question will likely reduce responses by 8%, which is a rate higher than previously estimated for U.S. households with noncitizens. The previously estimated rate was 5.8%.  


The United States Supreme Court has yet to make a decision on including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, but some in Madison’s immigrant community say that talk of the question has spread fear among immigrant communities.

U.S. Census Bureau researchers have found that including the question, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" could likely reduce response rates, leading to greater costs and a reduction in quality of the population count.

Saba Baig, an immigration attorney at the Catholic Multicultural Center, said discussion of the citizenship question has created a “a dampening of a voice, of immigrants in our community,” whether undocumented or not. 

“I think they’re inflicting a very psychological trauma on all the immigrants,” Baig said. “People are very scared.”  

She views the citizenship question as part of a broader anti-immigrant sentiment in the nation. 

“It’s diluting the political power of these immigrant communities,” Baig said. “It’s part of a greater issue of trying to quiet a demographic of the U.S.” 

The citizenship question is a critical factor in what could lead to the worst undercount of black and Latino people in the U.S. since 1990, according to the Urban Institute.  

Nationally, black residents could be undercounted by as much as 3.68%, or 1.7 million people, according to the nonpartisan think tank’s data projections. Latinos and Latinas could be undercounted by as much as 3.57%, or 2.2 million.

In Wisconsin, as much as 3.82%, 16,300, of black residents and 3.55% of Latinos and Latinas, 15,000 people, could be undercounted. 

An inaccurate count of the population could have influential ripple effects in how federal funding is allocated to communities and how political power is distributed for the next 10 years.     

‘Actual enumeration’

On Dec. 12, 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau received a request from the Department of Justice to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. However, emails disclosed during litigation challenging the citizenship question showed that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had begun discussing the addition of a citizenship question months before the request. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently determining the legality of including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. 

Robert Yablon

Robert Yablon

Robert Yablon, an assistant professor of law at UW-Madison, said the main issues in the case are technical administrative law questions, like if a government agency is lawfully making decisions, in additional to constitutional questions. 

“The constitution requires an enumeration, an actual enumeration of the population every 10 years, and the argument that plaintiffs in these cases are making is the inclusion of the citizenship question would so distort the count, it would render it no longer an actual enumeration,” Yablon said. 

The U.S. Constitution mandates that an “actual enumeration,” or counting, of all people take place every 10 years. 

The Census Bureau has collected citizenship data since 1820, though the practice of asking citizenship and migration-related questions on census has varied. The 1950 Census was the last full-count Census to ask the citizenship status of every resident in the United States if he or she reported a foreign birthplace.

Yablon said the main reason the government wants to include the question is to protect the voting rights of minorities, in other words, to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. Lurking behind this reason is evidence that the Voting Rights Act enforcement is pretextual, he said. 

The release of the formerly secret emails pressures the Supreme Court, Yablon said. 

“They want their decision to be regarded as a credible one,” Yablon said. “This might strengthen the narrative of the game being rigged. That could actually make the Supreme Court more reluctant to rule in favor of the government even if they were initially inclined to rule that way.” 

Potential decline in self-responses

However, challengers would say that existing information is adequate, or better, than the information the Census Bureau would collect with the addition of a citizenship question.  

“The challengers in these cases have a lot of ammunition on their side,” Yablon said, “that the inclusion of this question will make the census less accurate and it will actually generate less of the information that the Department of Commerce says that it wants.” 

The most recent Census Bureau research from June found that the citizenship question will likely reduce responses by 8%, a rate higher than previously estimated for U.S. households with noncitizens. The previously estimated rate was 5.8%.  

“The self-response effect — when people choose not to respond to the survey — could be particularly damaging to census quality, affecting not only citizenship statistics but also other demographic statistics and the population coverage of the count itself,” the paper reads.  

Not responding to the census increases the chances that census workers will visit a household. If workers cannot reach anyone at a household after multiple attempts, they will seek to get information from a neighborhood or turn to existing records.  

This could “significantly” increase the cost of the 2020 census by requiring more nonresponse follow up (NRFU) and reducing the quality of the population count. 

This data builds on information recorded in previous Census Bureau research. 

In a working paper from August 2018, U.S. Census Bureau researchers warned that including the citizenship question would lead to lower self-response rates in households potentially containing non citizens. This could also result in more nonresponse follow-up fieldwork, more proxy responses and a lower-quality population count.  

Citizenship question could be major barrier

A U.S. Census Bureau study from October 2018 concluded that a citizenship question may be a “major barrier” to ensuring full participating in the census because of fear that its purpose is to find undocumented immigrants. 


At stake  

The 2020 population numbers affect the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. They will determine the drawing of both congressional and local voting districts.   

The census will also determine how an estimated $880 billion a year in federal funding is distributed for public services, like schools and roads.

“If you start messing with the Census Bureau’s questions and nobody is going to restrain you, then it would really be a blow to the objectivity of national statistics,” John Thompson, a former Census Bureau director, said. 

Thompson worries a Supreme Court decision in favor of the citizenship question could set the precedent that the next secretary of commerce or other cabinet secretaries could change the census and other population surveys. This could affect measurements of employment, poverty, income and even the gross domestic product. 

In terms of a more subtle effect, Thompson said every survey of the population in the United States, both public and private, uses census numbers to make surveys more representative.

“If there’s an undercount in the census, then that undercount is carried forward for 10 years,” Thompson said.  

For the Latino community in particular, there is greater fear surrounding the census. The addition of a citizenship question could further isolate a population already vulnerable to undercounts. 

Another U.S. Census Bureau study from October 2018 concluded that a citizenship question may be a “major barrier” to ensuring full participating in the census because of fear that its purpose is to find undocumented immigrants. 

At a time of increased immigration enforcement and anti-immigration sentiments, people may feel endangered by answering the question. Key findings from this survey showed that Latinos believe the census would be used to find undcoumented people. 

The Census Act, Title 13 of the U.S. code, requires that responses to Census Bureau surveys and censuses be kept confidential and used only for statistical purposes. However, that could be of little comfort to people concerned about deportation. 

“They’re fearful that the information could be shared,” said Julie Dowling, an associate professor in the Department of Latina Latino Studies at the University of Illinois-Champaign. “The 

Census Bureau very clearly stipulates that they are not allowed to share information, but people don't really know that and even if they hear that, they don’t believe it.”  

Dowling said the Latino population is already undercounted, due to language barriers or more complex family situations. 

“Because racial minorities in general fall more into those categories — more linguistic minorities, more people who are making lower than the middle class income, et cetera  — they end up being missed more,” Dowling said.  

Fabiola Hamdan

Fabiola Hamdan, Dane County's first immigrant affairs specialist, speaks at Action For Our DREAMERS, A Community Response to the State of DACA press conference at Centro Hispano March 5, 2018. 

Fabiola Hamdan, immigration affairs specialist for Dane County, said the fear that some in the Latino community face is hard to put into words. 

“I feel if I was undocumented the last thing I wanted to do is answer questions about citizenship,” Hamdan said, especially during the current political environment. 

Hamdan said she has not heard from Dane County residents on this issue. 

“The people I’m working with are more concerned on day-to-day life,” Hamdan said. “They are a more vulnerable people. The last thing on their mind, probably, is the census.” 

Academics, current and former Census Bureau officials, and local community members all say the citizenship question necessitates even greater outreach about the census. 

“It’s going to make it hard for the bureau to get the message out that it’s safe to respond to the census,” Thompson said. 

Thompson points to a “dramatic reduction” in the undercount between 1990 and 2010, citing that the main difference was in communication and partnership with local communities. 

Yablon said if a citizenship question is included, it will be incumbent on state and local officials to participate in census efforts, “engaging in community outreach and encouraging people who might be disinclined to respond.” 

Baig, the immigration attorney in Madison, said in many ways, the damage is already done. Addressing the repercussions of a citizenship question and encouraging fearful community members to complete the census will be that much more difficult. 

“The damage can be undone but it requires a lot of education to bring them out of the shadows,” Baig said. 

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