The decision has sparked fierce controversy, with some civil rights and justice advocacy groups believing the citizenship question is unnecessary, could affect the accuracy of the census overall and intimidate potential participants, especially those who believe they will be targeted by U.S. immigration enforcement authorities.
Caribbean lawmakers also weighed in. Jumaane D. Williams, a New York City Council member whose parents are from Grenada, condemned the addition of the citizenship question while accusing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump of possible discrimination against immigrants.
“Given the onslaught of unrelenting unwarranted, bigoted attacks on immigrants from our government in the last 14 months, it is egregiously clear that the Trump administration’s appalling move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census is designed to serve one of two purposes,” Williams, whose Brooklyn constituency has a large Caribbean community, told the Caribbean Media Corporation.
“Either the Trump administration and its allies want to collect information on immigrants with the intent of carrying out heinous programs, or they hope to create a pervasive fear that will discourage immigrant populations from participating in the census, and so damaging democracy by denying fair representation in government for diverse communities like the one I represent.”
New York State Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, daughter of Haitian immigrants, argued that “everyone should be counted” and stressed the “importance of an accurate and full census count.” However, she said the Trump administration’s decision to include the question of citizenship “will hurt communities of color,” adding it will “undoubtedly reduce census participation for fear that this information will be used to further the federal government’s anti-immigrant agenda.”
Under law, a census is required every 10 years to count the number of people in the U.S. The law does not specifically state it should count citizens.
Opponents of the Commerce Department’s ruling believe adding the question could be driven by partisan politics, since, for example, decisions on where to allocate billions of dollars in federal funding – for areas such as health care and education - uses information from the census. Therefore, it is possible, opponents argue, that allocation of those funds could be determined by what political representatives from those communities believe would serve their interests best. Only U.S. citizens can vote in government elections.
Census statistics are also used in allocating electoral districts, which can directly affect political representation locally and nationally.
Barack Obama, who Caribbean nationals overwhelmingly supported during his two terms as U.S. president, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who traces his family’s roots to the Caribbean, are among those who believe the citizenship question on the census is unnecessary. They claim information about U.S. citizenship is already available to the government since the Justice Department collects that data through the American Community Survey (ACS).
The last time a U.S. census asked about citizenship was in 1950. However, the Commerce Department claims the information is needed to better implement the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
“Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the VRA, and Secretary (Wilbur) Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts,” a Commerce Department statement noted last month.
However, opponents of the citizenship question believe people will shy away from participating in the census, especially since Trump’s administration is not particularly trusted in communities with significant minority populations.
Last month the Trump re-election campaign backed the citizenship question in correspondence sent out to supporters.
“The President wants the 2020 United States Census to ask people whether or not they are citizens,” an e-mailed noted. “In another era, this would be COMMON SENSE ... but 19 attorneys general said they will fight the President if he dares to ask people if they are citizens. The President wants to know if you're on his side.”
Many potential census participants worry the information they provide will not remain confidential. They claim the information, especially from undocumented immigrants, could be used to target them.
There is also fear false information will be provided to the census. If a census is not accurate, the fallout could be dire.
“(Inserting the citizenship question) is a clear attempt to politicize the process by discouraging minority communities and immigrant communities from participating in the count,” a statement released by Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, noted last month.
“This decision comes at a time when we have seen xenophobic and anti-immigrant policy positions from this administration. This is an arbitrary and untested decision that all but guarantees that the Census will not produce a full and accurate count of the population as the constitution requires.”
The Commerce Department claimed that adding the citizenship question will not limit the response to the census. It also questioned the reliability of the ACS, which reportedly targets less than three percent of the population.
The debate over the addition of the citizenship question to the census appears headed for a heated showdown. Up to press time at least a dozen states were preparing to challenge the Commerce Department’s decision in court.
“We’re prepared to do what we must to protect California from a deficient Census,” a statement from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra read last month. “Including a citizenship question on the 2020 census is not just a bad idea — it is illegal.”
Holder also indicated he intends to use legal means to strike down the Commerce Department’s decision.
“We will litigate to stop the administration from moving forward with this irresponsible decision,” said Holder.