Earlier this week, I was disheartened by the Commerce Department’s announcement that it intends to ask a citizenship question on the 2020 Census form. Adding a citizenship question will disrupt the planning for the next Census by increasing costs and adversely affecting the accuracy.
Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the decennial Census counts people where they live in this country once every 10 years, regardless of citizenship status. The results from the Census are required to reapportion the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Census results are also used to redraw political boundaries and equitably distribute public funding.
The citizenship question was recently added at the request of the Justice Department to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, federal law does not require it to be asked during the decennial Census.
The Census Bureau is required to count people where they live on April 1, 2020, not where they are registered to vote. Estimates about noncitizen population are already attained every year by asking about citizenship on the American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau continuously mails to 2.5 million households every month.
There are reasons the citizenship question has not been included on the decennial Census form since 1950. One of the significant challenges of every Census is overcoming anxiety and suspicion among hard-to-count populations, especially new immigrants seeking refuge in America. In many countries, a census is used for horrible purposes, including drafting individuals into involuntary military service.
Even the U.S. government once used Census information improperly to forcibly relocate 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Census Bureau shared personally identifying information including the name, address, citizenship and country of origin of Japanese-Americans with the War and Justice Departments. This laid the groundwork for one of the darkest chapters in American history.
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The inclusion of a citizenship question will likely decrease participation and accuracy rates among hard-to-count populations including immigrants, racial minorities, low-income households and rural residents. Fear and mistrust of the Census will also lead to inaccurate data that skew the results. Unfortunately, hard-to-count populations tend to provide false and/or misleading answers to certain questions.
More importantly, these individuals may not be counted at all. An estimated 2.1 percent of the African-American and 1.5 percent of the Hispanic population were missed during the last Census. Failing to count everyone living in Nebraska could cost us a congressional seat.
Only 10 questions were asked on the 2010 Census form about persons living in a household, which included name, age/date of birth, relationship, sex, race and ethnicity. Even with these basic questions, the national participation rate for the Census was 72 percent. The nonresponse follow-up cost taxpayers approximately $72 million for every 1 percent of households that failed to complete and return their form. A significant increase in nonparticipation could cost billions of dollars.
By law, Congress does not technically approve the questions, but they can exercise their legislative authority to influence the questions through a variety of mechanisms. If they do not recommend changes, then their approval is implied.
Asking about citizenship is not necessary on the 2020 Census form. It will only undercut the accuracy while wasting taxpayer money. Congress has the ability to remove the question, and I encourage our congressional delegation to do it for the benefit of all Nebraskans.