2020 Census: Citizenship Question And Its Impact

Posted on 04/20/18
By Kate Harveston | Via ViewsWeek
(Image by Gerald, CC license)

Following a campaign filled with attacks against immigrants and undocumented residents, the Trump administration has vowed to change the U.S. Census — to be taken in 2020 — to include a question of U.S. citizenship. Most of the left-leaning states have strongly opposed this change, including the entire West Coast, Illinois and several in the Northeast. For its part, the administration has remained characteristically murky on their intentions for including the question.


Still, some have hypothesized the inclusion of this question could have serious and tangible consequences. Most importantly, it could result in a serious undercount of the number of people living in the U.S. If the Census requires including both a name and a citizenship status, many of the respondents living illegally within the country might balk at the idea of admitting to illegal alien status on a federal document. This lack of documentation could cause some cities — particularly those with a high immigrant presence — to have significantly skewed numbers.


When reported numbers are lower than real, important measures — including federal funding and aid programs — get scaled back accordingly. Many of the states vowing to oppose these changes have large cities or groups of illegal immigrants. New Mexico, a typically conservative state, sticks out on the list of states planning to sue the federal government over this issue. However, since New Mexico directly borders Mexico, and has some of the highest numbers of illegal immigrants, their opposition makes sense.


Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

Other states have signed on for more rhetorical purposes. The Trump administration glided into the presidency on the back of a xenophobic message: that Mexicans were crossing the border and taking American jobs. Plans for tougher sentences for immigrant criminals and a gigantic wall to keep out illegal immigrants defined much of the election coverage. While the wall itself remains theoretical, Trump has followed through with his promises of tighter border security, just recently dispatching the National Guard to the Mexican border.


This worldview — that the country remains besieged by foreign influences and must be protected — clashes with the philosophy of many of the left-leaning regions. Many states — including California and Illinois — have gigantic immigrant populations, many of whom live in the metropolitan areas. For Illinois, Chicago is home to people of all nationalities, some of whom are inevitably undocumented immigrants. In cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, the percentages are even higher.


For cities like these, the move not only skews federal funding — which disproportionately impacts low-income areas — but also further alienates a specific group of contributing residents. For many of these individuals, signing a document stating they are an illegal immigrant is one step away from deportation, and not a risk worth taking. However, failure to comply could result in their area — which is likely to include many other undocumented residents — to lose important federal funding.


Administration Rationale

For its part, the Trump administration has fired back with its rationale for the move, stating its intention to enforce the Voting Rights Act — which requires accurate information on voting-eligible citizens. Without a question of citizenship, it is tough to redraw district lines according to potential votes, and other administrative tasks become hazy. Likewise, states receive representation in the House of Representatives based on the state population drawn from census data.


If undocumented immigrants are inflating a state’s population, it can hold a disproportionate number of House seats. This gives states like California — which already holds the largest population and number of House seats — a distinct advantage.


Other Criticisms

Several other forms of criticism have emerged following the proposed change. Some state legislators and legal experts point to the rapidity with which the question was proposed. Under normal circumstances, a new Census question would be subject to a lengthy — often years-long — review. In this case, the question was greenlit immediately before April 1: the deadline for proposed changes. This situation is troublingly reminiscent of other Republican policies — including the tax bill — which GOP lawmakers forced through without bipartisan participation.


Others have worried this is yet another step in the process of tracking and ultimately deporting immigrants and their families. Given the tentative status of DACA — which is protected by several federal judges, but is still officially dismantled — many are worried this move could impact the lives of children growing up with undocumented parents. While members of the legal community have come forward offering services for disenfranchised members of the immigrant population, the situation is still worrisome for many.



The new Census is rapidly approaching. Characteristically, the Census has existed as a bastion of impartiality, with questions intended for strictly analytical purposes. However, with the hyper-partisanship of today’s political climate, it is no surprise even this institution has become the center of a controversial proposed change. This change, if it goes through, could have profound effects on the undocumented immigrants of the country, as well as those living in their areas and the entire electoral process.


Kate Harveston is a political commentator and blogger. She blogs at onlyslightlybiased.com. She is a regular contributor to ViewsWeek. She tweets at @KateHarveston



Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the ViewsWeek.

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