What you need to know about
the census citizenship question


Q: Should the 2020 U.S. Census include a question about citizenship status?

By Sarah Sidlow

DTR. It stands for “Define the Relationship”—that seriously sweat-inducing conversation between two people about where their relationship is heading.

This week, the Department of Commerce announced it would be having “the chat” with all of us, by including a question about American citizenship on the 2020 census. Since the announcement, way more people have been talking about the Commerce Department than usual.

A (very) brief history
The U.S. census has been a target for criticism since its creation in 1790. In its most basic form, it’s a nation-wide headcount conducted every decade that decides how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives. And although the census in and of itself is not inherently nefarious, its legacy comprises a number of regrettable use cases, including: the 13th Amendment, in which the Founders notoriously compromised that each slave counted as three-fifths of a person; the tracking of Japanese Americans during World War II and the complete absence of American Indians.

The last time the census included a question about American citizenship was in 1950.

Why do you ask?
The decision to reinstate the citizenship question came after a Justice Department request arguing that the DOJ needs better citizenship data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. As it happens, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act bars the dilution of voting power of a minority group through redistricting. In order to enforce those requirements, the DOJ argues, more accurate data about eligible voters is needed.

Some proponents of the citizenship question also argue that the census should really only count citizens anyway, because basing voting districts on a number that may include a high population of non-voters doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Others maintain that it’s just plain reasonable for a government to wonder how many people are in its country, and how many of those people are citizens.

Moreover, this isn’t the first time the census has included a citizenship question—it existed on the census for roughly 200 years, before it disappeared without
much fanfare.

Why do people care?
Critics of the citizenship question argue that, especially in today’s political climate, both citizens and noncitizens fear questions from the federal government. In fact, some argue, including a question about citizenship will actually discourage people from completing the census—in effect working at cross purposes with the Census Bureau’s mission to improve the decennial count’s accuracy.

Many argue the move is the latest symptom of the systemic anti-immigration theme permeating the Trump administration. States with significant immigrant populations, which are traditionally controlled by Democrats, face the loss of Congressional seats, Electoral College votes and federal dollars, should immigrants be dissuaded from being counted in the 2020 survey.

Opponents of the decision also point to the Constitutional language that established the census, which calls for a regular “actual enumeration” based on the “number of free persons” (as opposed to enslaved persons) at that time.

All persons will be invited to participate in the U.S. census in 2020. In an attempt to minimize the impact on response rates, the Census Bureau will save the citizenship question for last.


We all count

Let’s make the census make sense

By Marla Boone

2020 will be a notable year in U.S. history. The FAA mandate for ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, a system designed to make more efficient use of airspace and air traffic control) should be fulfilled by January. In November, disgruntled citizens will have an opportunity to place a sane person in the White House. And, oh yes, speaking of citizens and voting, it will be time for another census. Apparently in government, a day without a contentious debate is like a day without sunshine. Or kickbacks. Or gerrymandering. Or whatever is considered good sport in Washington these days.

The issue du jour is the reinstatement of a question on the census form asking about citizenship status. The question was removed from the form in 1950 and is being included again at the request of the Department of Justice. In 1950, the number of foreign-born residents was ebbing. This is no longer the case. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) is a non-partisan source of analysis and polling for policymakers. It specializes in large-scale public information campaigns on health and social issues. According to the KFF, a full seven per cent of the population (22.3 million) of the United States are not citizens. About half of those are illegal immigrants. That number is not ebbing. And, seventy years later, the stakes aren’t either.

The census is a tool. Like all tools, it can be misused and certainly has been. For the first census, enslaved individuals were counted as 3/5 of a person. “American Indians” weren’t counted at all. During a particularly shameful chapter of our history, the census was used during World War II to track down American citizens of Japanese descent, the better to hasten their forced internment in gruesome camps. (And those of German or Italian descent were not incarcerated because…?) It took until 1980 for all those unenlightened gray-haired white men in Washington, D.C. to stumble upon the notion that women could be heads of households.

One function of this tool is to determine how many seats in the House of Representatives a state is entitled to. In the words of University of Wisconsin history professor Margo Anderson, “Every ten years we shuffle the deck and take power away from areas of the country that are not growing as fast as others.” The numbers acquired in the census are also used to determine how to spread that good ol’ Yankee dollar around. Those mathematically inclined may consider the following equation: population = political power = federal funds. Thus, according to transitive law, people = money.

And it would be a comfort, albeit a cold one, to have some sort of reassurance that the people on whose numbers all else is based are being counted in a reliable manner. According to the American Community Survey, thirteen percent of those who live in California are not citizens. Eleven per cent of Florida’s, ten percent of Hawaii’s, and ten percent of New Jersey’s populations are not either. We in Ohio (with a two percent foreign-born populace) are having the representation to which we are entitled watered down because millions of non-citizens are being counted in other states.

Many years ago my friend John imparted this eternal verity: “The first rule is, life isn’t fair.” Tomorrow morning when you get out of bed, go look in the mirror. If you were born in this country—and are thus a citizen—and are white, thank (insert preferred deity here). By a sheer accident of birth, your life is going to be a lot easier than a lot of others. Is that fair? No. But it is a fact.

Another fact is U.S. citizenship isn’t a right. It’s a privilege. If you are the happy recipient of one of those aforementioned accidents of birth, good on you. You hit the I-get-to-live-here-with-no-further-paperwork jackpot. The United States has demonstrated, with a few notable exceptions, a startlingly liberal view on immigration. Sure, there was that regrettable one hundred years or so when the Chinese were virtually banned from entering this country. But if you wish to live in a country other than that of your origin, it doesn’t seem outside the parameters of reasonableness that you earn the privilege of doing so. Illegal immigrants in Germany and Italy are deported. In France they face jail time. In Iran (and just how desperate would you have to be to seek asylum in Iran?) even recognized political refugees cannot attain citizenship or permanent residency. In the U.S. those same people are counted among and given the same
representation as citizens.

So, life isn’t fair. But one thing that can be made fair is to ensure that the rights of Americans are not being diluted by including in population data those who are not citizens. And the only way to even approach doing that is to include the question.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Once the golden door has slammed shut behind them, let’s make sure they’re
counted correctly.


Don’t ask, don’t tell

The 5th Amendment protects everyone from self-incrimination

By Patrick Bittner

Throughout the long and at many times tumultuous relationship the voters of this country have had with their government, a trend has been increasing. A trend toward fearing the government rather than being just skeptical, a trend of working against the institutions of humans and for the ideas of the individual, a trend of absolving the sins of the church, community, and family at the cost of blaming the society that they exist in. While the answers to most questions would involve a large degree of governmental involvement, this particular case is exactly the opposite. Posing this question has no real merit in completing the task the census is designed to undertake. Ultimately, including the question would create turmoil and inaccuracies, the effects of which would be seen for the following decade or longer.

While the most basic purpose of the census is to provide a simple count of the people living in a particular state, there exists a long legal history of more complicated and indeed seemingly unrelated information being gathered. According to the United States Census Bureau website, “(the census) is not limited to a headcount of the population” and “does not prohibit the gathering of other statistics, if ‘necessary and proper,’ for the intelligent exercise of other powers enumerated in the constitution, and in such case there could be no objection to acquiring the information through the same machinery by which the population is enumerated.” However, what is not stated in that ruling from United States v. Moriarity, is that there exists a mechanism to use the responses to affect the course of history.

Asking a question that could require an individual to admit that they are breaking federal law is an unacceptable breach of privacy in an age where privacy is being breached in ways never before realized. Not only is it unacceptable for the institution made of, by, and for the people to be actively attempting to undermine those people, but asking this particular question would appear to be wholly unconstitutional, breaking one of the oldest and strongest amendments to our Constitution, the Fifth. Indicating that you are not a citizen, with no follow-up question about your immigration status and no program in place to grant you citizenship, directly goes against the idea that “no person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, nor shall be compelled on any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

Frankly, the tendency of the current administration toward fascist policies can no longer go unchecked, for a group of ideologues who tout the merits and holiness of the document, it seems that few of them have actually read the Constitution.

The great thing about this country, the thing that is being forgotten more and more often, is that the purpose of our society is the idea that everyone, no matter race, ethnicity, religion, sex, education, or family, should be afforded the same opportunity. This does not end when citizenship is removed. According to a PolitiFact article, Professor of law Gabriel Chin stated, “there is no question that all persons in the United States including unauthorized migrants enjoy the protections of the Constitution. The Fifth Amendment, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, protects everyone from deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process of law.”  So why then is it suddenly acceptable to force an individual to self-incriminate in such a way that their very life could be in danger? The very notion of this question preys upon one of the most vulnerable communities in this country at a time when they are being systemically attacked for an issue that is, more times than not, no fault of their own. Not only is this a Constitutional issue, but as a tax payer, frankly I don’t want the Federal government wasting my tax dollars by asking this question. The resulting plethora of bureaucratic issues that this single question would create would cause an astounding amount of waste and cause an already tumultuous process to go even slower and cost even more.

The role of government is vast and unquestionably complicated. But what is clear is that the role of the government, at any level, is to provide for its constituents. And while some of the people in this country may not be citizens, they do pay taxes, contribute hard work and an even harder life, and build this country just as much as any of us. It has been seen countless times that the immigrant communities do not detract from our culture but rather build it up in a way that was never before thought of. And while the complaints of the groups that feel threatened by this community are real, they are not a fault of the community itself. This question is not one of who has and who has not, but rather what it means to have and have not in a time when the very fabric of our society is being ripped apart by the institutions it created.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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