The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last Tuesday about the Census Bureau’s plan to include the citizenship question in the 2020 census.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg struck at the heart of the issue when she probed why the question — part of every census from 1820 to 1950 — had been removed. “Didn’t the Census Bureau give a reason why it was dropped?” Ginsburg asked. All demographic questions were moved to the census long form, which doesn’t exist anymore, or the American Community Survey (ACS), answered the Trump administration’s representative, US Solicitor General Noel Francisco. He added that “the problems with using the American Community Survey are well known.”
Indeed, until 1920, the citizenship question was only asked of adult men. Then from 1920 to 1950, it was asked of all members of a household. Subsequently, in 1960, it was removed altogether and added to the long form census and then in 2010 to the ACS.
Since 1960, the citizenship question has had limited use, asked only of a sample of households, which is one of the problems that Francisco alludes to. The long form census was given to only one-sixth of households and the ACS samples one out of forty households every year.
Not satisfied with Francisco’s response, Ginsburg pressed further, “there was nothing in 1960 to the effect that the Census Bureau found that putting it on the short form would depress the count of non-citizens?” “Well, well, sure your honor, but that’s because they thought that, along with all of the other demographic questions in the census, had an overall impact of – on – on – on overall census accuracy,” Francisco responded, concluding that with any question added “you’re always trading off information and accuracy.”
Historically, the census has always been about accuracy. The first ever census was conducted on August 2, 1790 when census enumerators “went out on horseback to find, question and catalogue the population of the United States,” according to the Smithsonian. Congress required that every household be visited for an accurate count.
Rather obliquely, Francisco argued that “If the citizenship question were not to be added because it would depress the response rate of one community, namely the Hispanic one, then it would empower “any group in the country to knock off any question on the census if they simply get together and boycott it.”
No stranger to parsing obtuse logic, Justice Sonia Sotomayor honed in, “Are you suggesting that Hispanics are boycotting the census? Are you suggesting they don’t have, whether it is rational or not, that they don’t have a legitimate fear?” To which Francisco responded “not in the slightest, your honor.”
These exchanges between the Trump administration and liberal justices of the Supreme Court encapsulated why the citizenship question in the census is in the cross-hairs of a much larger debate of how political power will be redefined if there is an inaccurate census count. Justice Sotomayor’s question — is there a legitimate fear — gives context to the debate.
“I have been practicing and teaching immigration law since the mid-1970s. I have never seen the level of fear in immigration communities as high as it is today,” remarked Bill O Hing, professor of law and migration studies at the University of San Francisco. He said the citizenship question “will definitely deter immigrants and those in mixed families (citizen and noncitizen members) from completing the census form…That means that places like San Francisco and California that have large numbers of immigrants will suffer an undercount.”
The Census Bureau’s own research, conducted between February to September 2017, cites confidentiality concerns among immigrants and communities of color if the question is included. The report went on to quote some of these concerns. “Particularly with our current political climate, the Latino community will not sign up because they will think that Census will pass their information on and people can come looking for them.”
These fears, it is believed, will cause people to not respond to the 2020 census altogether or skip the citizenship question, reducing the accuracy of the census count.
Layering the need for information on top of enumeration has muddied the intent of the census. Surely there is more than one way to gather citizenship data and yet maintain the integrity of the census?
According to Pew Research, the Census Bureau has been filling in missing data in the census in the past, using a technique called imputation. “In the 2010 census, imputation added more than a million people to the household population, and it filled in missing data about age, sex and race for even more people.” Furthermore, the Bureau plans on using Social Security and IRS files to cover missing responses to the citizenship question.
If the census, without the citizenship question, has not been sufficiently accurate, and the citizenship data generated may not be comprehensive, doesn’t it make more sense to have a more accurate count of the population than to have an undercount of the population and an inaccurate record of citizenship?
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. This is an opinion column and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan