The U.S. Department of Commerce's decision this week to add a citizenship status question to the 2020 Census has prompted widespread concern from state and local officials.
At a time of heightened fears in immigrant communities, lawmakers and civil rights groups worry that inclusion of the question will discourage participation, altering the accuracy of Census counts. States and municipalities have a lot to lose if immigrants are undercounted. The decennial Census dictates political representation at all levels of government and guides the allocation of billions of dollars in federal funding each year.
The announcement set off a legal battle, with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra immediately filing a lawsuit and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman saying he would lead multistate litigation. Prince George’s County, Md., similarly joined the NAACP in filing a lawsuit Wednesday.
More than 160 mayors issued a letter last month urging for the rejection of the question, which hasn’t been included on all Census forms since 1950. On Tuesday, several of them denounced the decision.
“By asking the citizenship question, the federal government is making the count more difficult and inhibiting the necessary information to ensure that cities have adequate resources,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement.
It’s hard to say just how much the question could influence Census response rates. “While there is widespread belief among many parties that adding a citizenship question could reduce response rates, the Census Bureau’s analysis did not provide definitive, empirical support for that belief,” wrote Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in a memo posted Monday night.
But in a conference call with reporters, Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, countered that the secretary needed to show the question wouldn't hinder participation and it hadn't been adequately tested. Earlier focus groups conducted by the bureau, Gupta said, had identified fears in immigrant communities. “Ross is simply trying to shrink wrap a respectable label on a bottle that is filled with Trump’s poisonous and partisan agenda,” Gupta said.
Some of the biggest line items in the federal budget that rely, at least in part, on Census data include Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as food stamps), and highway planning and construction grants.
According to a recent report by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, about 300 federal programs allocate over $800 billion a year based on Census counts. Researchers further estimated the effects of an undercount on five programs administered by the Department of Health and Human Services that accounted for nearly half of all federal grants to states. They found that 37 states lost a median of $1,091 in fiscal 2015 for each person missed in the 2010 Census.
Some areas of the country are particularly vulnerable to undercounting if fears of lower immigrant participation come to fruition. According to the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants accounted for more than 10 percent of the population in the border regions of McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas, and Yuma, Ariz. -- the highest estimated concentrations nationally as of 2014. By contrast, undocumented immigrants made up less than 1 percent of the population in Pittsburgh, St. Louis and several other predominantly Midwestern regions.
The last Census undercounted Hispanics by nearly 2 percent, while whites were overcounted. (The Constitution mandates a count of all persons, regardless of legal status.)
While much of the concern has focused on the undocumented, some officials and demographers also contend that naturalized citizens may be swayed from participating as well. Research suggests Americans who hold cynical views of government have also historically responded at much lower rates.
“This is going to cause chaos that is unpredictable,” says Justin Levitt, a Loyola Marymount University law professor. “For anyone who does not feel comfortable with the federal government, it exacerbates a risk of an undercount.”
Data published in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provide a broader estimate of all non-U.S. citizens living in the country, including those with legal immigration status. Non-U.S. citizens account for more than one-fifth of the population in 22 cities with at least 100,000 residents. Most of these jurisdictions are found in California, Florida and Texas but also in places like Bellevue, Wash., and Providence, R.I. This suggests that undercounts could yield drastic effects if some non-citizens opt not to participate.
President Trump’s campaign committee sent out a fundraising email last week highlighting his push to include the question on the survey. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who led the administration’s disbanded voter fraud commission, told the conservative website Breitbart News that the move was one of the president’s most important accomplishments thus far.
Democrats sharply criticized the decision, calling it politically motivated. But Democratic-leaning areas wouldn't be the only ones to take a political hit. Levitt notes that many urban areas with fast-growing minority populations are in Texas and other red states.
What's more, while it’s assumed that cities would cede power to rural areas if immigrants return fewer forms, some farming communities home to large numbers of migrant workers could also be affected. “People assume the effects will be on the cities, and they may well be right, but there will be a substantial impact on the rural communities as well," says Levitt.
Congress is not required to sign off on the Census Bureau’s proposed list of questions, although lawmakers could pass legislation barring the question from the survey. Democratic Rep. Grace Meng of New York vowed to introduce a bill blocking its inclusion, while another proposal calls for the exclusion of any question that hasn’t been tested.
Wendy Manning, president of the Population Association of America, notes that how the question is presented on the survey could influence participation. Commerce Secretary Ross has directed that the citizenship question be placed last.
It’s also possible that respondents could simply mail back their forms with the question left blank and still be counted. Answering all questions is required by federal law, although non-respondents have rarely been prosecuted. For the first time, people will have the option to submit their responses online, although it’s unclear whether the system will allow for incomplete responses.
Either way, Manning says the publicity the citizenship question will receive could deter some from filling out the form in the first place. “It’s very late in the game to be adding questions,” she says. “It’s going to affect allocation of resources to communities that need them.”
Data: Non-U.S. Citizens in Cities
The Census Bureau publishes population estimates for non-U.S. citizens, which include both the undocumented and those with legal immigration status. Figures are shown for larger cities and towns with populations exceeding 100,000.
|Jurisdiction||Share of Population||Non-U.S. citizens||Margin of Error|
|Santa Ana, California||30.6%||102,015||82|
|Elizabeth, New Jersey||28.3%||36,215||93|
|East Los Angeles, California||27.3%||33,845||2,279|
|Santa Maria, California||26.1%||27,021||46|
|El Monte, California||25.8%||29,850||76|
|Santa Clara, California||23.0%||28,198||79|
|Jersey City, New Jersey||22.7%||59,419||55|
|Los Angeles, California||20.8%||816,023||150|
|Daly City, California||18.1%||19,125||65|
|El Cajon, California||17.9%||18,377||89|
|Paterson, New Jersey||17.8%||26,209||49|
|Providence, Rhode Island||17.5%||31,353||49|
|San Jose, California||17.3%||174,510||164|
|San Mateo, California||17.3%||17,657||64|
|Newark, New Jersey||17.2%||48,087||81|
|New York, New York||17.0%||1,438,215||N/A|
|Sunrise Manor, Nevada||16.9%||32,520||3,095|
|Garden Grove, California||16.7%||29,234||97|
|Jurupa Valley, California||16.4%||16,559||51|
|Pompano Beach, Florida||16.3%||17,264||72|
|Chula Vista, California||15.2%||39,734||63|
|West Valley City, Utah||15.1%||20,309||170|
|Costa Mesa, California||15.0%||16,836||76|
|San Bernardino, California||14.9%||31,893||170|
|West Palm Beach, Florida||14.2%||14,856||79|
|Yonkers, New York||13.5%||26,994||67|
|Long Beach, California||13.5%||63,443||83|
|El Paso, Texas||13.5%||91,479||67|
|Kansas City, Kansas||13.5%||20,190||73|
|Spring Valley, Nevada||13.5%||25,702||2,601|
|Lehigh Acres, Florida||13.4%||15,060||2,543|
|San Francisco, California||13.4%||113,991||N/A|
|Grand Prairie, Texas||13.3%||24,682||72|
|Sandy Springs, Georgia||13.0%||13,334||77|
|Miami Gardens, Florida||12.9%||14,482||91|
|Salt Lake City, Utah||12.8%||24,518||60|
|Urban Honolulu, Hawaii||12.8%||44,612||80|
|San Diego, California||12.7%||174,677||108|
|North Las Vegas, Nevada||12.5%||28,840||89|
|Moreno Valley, California||12.5%||25,252||98|
|West Covina, California||12.3%||13,233||183|
|Las Vegas, Nevada||12.1%||74,022||99|
|Fort Lauderdale, Florida||12.0%||20,996||91|
|New Haven, Connecticut||11.9%||15,546||60|
|Coral Springs, Florida||11.8%||15,026||51|
|Fort Worth, Texas||11.8%||95,993||103|
|Ann Arbor, Michigan||11.7%||13,802||52|
|Santa Rosa, California||11.4%||19,695||117|
|Pembroke Pines, Florida||10.8%||17,866||91|
|Charlotte, North Carolina||10.5%||85,306||110|
|The Woodlands, Texas||10.4%||11,278||2,965|
|Durham, North Carolina||10.3%||26,048||70|
|Sterling Heights, Michigan||10.3%||13,589||43|
|Cary, North Carolina||10.1%||15,794||323|
|St. Paul, Minnesota||9.6%||28,387||54|
|College Station, Texas||9.4%||9,809||43|
|Santa Clarita, California||9.1%||16,428||96|
|San Antonio, Texas||8.9%||127,648||162|
|Thousand Oaks, California||8.7%||11,179||79|
|High Point, North Carolina||8.7%||9,455||102|
|Raleigh, North Carolina||8.4%||37,103||264|
|Oklahoma City, Oklahoma||8.4%||52,015||299|
|Rancho Cucamonga, California||8.2%||14,248||76|
|Washington, District of Columbia||8.2%||53,982||N/A|
|Syracuse, New York||7.9%||11,456||76|
|Round Rock, Texas||7.7%||8,666||394|
|San Buenaventura, California||7.5%||8,225||80|
|Port St. Lucie, Florida||7.5%||13,119||62|
|Simi Valley, California||7.5%||9,403||65|
|Des Moines, Iowa||7.4%||15,826||67|
|Athens-Clarke County, Georgia||7.4%||8,912||179|
|Grand Rapids, Michigan||7.1%||13,830||115|
|Greensboro, North Carolina||7.0%||19,684||124|
|Manchester, New Hampshire||6.8%||7,491||45|
|Winston-Salem, North Carolina||6.7%||16,063||712|
|Cape Coral, Florida||6.7%||11,382||46|
|Las Cruces, New Mexico||6.6%||6,661||120|
|Huntington Beach, California||6.5%||12,875||129|
|Albuquerque, New Mexico||6.4%||35,528||99|
|Indianapolis (balance), Indiana||6.4%||53,772||462|
|Elk Grove, California||6.2%||10,174||82|
|West Jordan, Utah||6.1%||6,727||86|
|South Bend, Indiana||5.9%||5,945||621|
|Green Bay, Wisconsin||5.9%||6,141||40|
|Overland Park, Kansas||5.7%||10,489||81|
|North Charleston, South Carolina||5.4%||5,779||56|
|Buffalo, New York||5.4%||14,007||55|
|Wichita Falls, Texas||5.2%||5,462||61|
|Corpus Christi, Texas||5.1%||16,307||56|
|Little Rock, Arkansas||5.0%||9,904||58|
|Rochester, New York||5.0%||10,506||47|
|Fargo, North Dakota||4.8%||5,512||40|
|Fort Wayne, Indiana||4.6%||12,122||378|
|Sioux Falls, South Dakota||4.4%||7,432||45|
|Boise City, Idaho||4.3%||9,357||64|
|Kansas City, Missouri||4.2%||19,686||173|
|Anchorage municipality, Alaska||4.1%||12,409||N/A|
|St. Petersburg, Florida||4.1%||10,458||51|
|Colorado Springs, Colorado||4.1%||18,249||181|
|Wilmington, North Carolina||3.8%||4,376||69|
|Columbia, South Carolina||3.8%||5,069||126|
|Highlands Ranch, Colorado||3.7%||3,997||1,195|
|Fort Collins, Colorado||3.7%||5,780||68|
|St. Louis, Missouri||3.7%||11,602||N/A|
|Newport News, Virginia||3.6%||6,585||N/A|
|Palm Bay, Florida||3.6%||3,813||86|
|Virginia Beach, Virginia||3.5%||15,614||N/A|
|New Orleans, Louisiana||3.3%||12,744||N/A|
|Broken Arrow, Oklahoma||3.3%||3,421||75|
|Baton Rouge, Louisiana||3.2%||7,259||62|
|Fayetteville, North Carolina||2.8%||5,610||65|
|Cedar Rapids, Iowa||2.6%||3,317||71|
|Spring Hill, Florida||2.2%||2,247||1,362|
|Charleston, South Carolina||2.1%||2,684||95|
|Macon-Bibb County, Georgia||2.1%||3,180||120|
|Augusta-Richmond County, Georgia||1.8%||3,508||25|
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012-2016 American Community Survey Estimates