Editorial: The Trump Administration Sabotages the Census


President Trump with Wilbur Ross at the White House last week.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In a last-minute move that would give Republicans an advantage in maintaining control of the House of Representatives, the Trump administration is reinstating a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. Coming from an administration that has expressed incredible hostility toward immigrants, the change was not surprising, but it’s galling nonetheless.

The commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, announced the decision late Monday, less than a week before the Census Bureau, which his agency oversees, is supposed to send a final list of questions for the 2020 census to Congress. If the decision stands — the attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, has filed a lawsuit seeking to block it, and other elected officials are preparing to do so, too — it would be the first time in nearly 70 years that the federal government has asked people filling out census forms to list their citizenship status.

This is important because the census count determines how many House seats each state gets. The census is also used to determine how more than $600 billion in federal spending is allocated across the country, including Medicaid, food stamps and grants to schools. Asking about citizenship will reduce responses from immigrant families, which are already less likely than others to answer government surveys and are today terrified by President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. An inaccurate count is likely to provide more representation to states with fewer immigrants and relatively higher response rates and take seats away from states like California where response rates would be relatively lower. Given the geography of American politics, that would probably lead to more power for Republicans, and less for Democrats. Experts say response rates will fall even from citizens and permanent residents because they may have family members who are undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Ross’s decision was based on the disingenuous argument that the Department of Justice needs to know the citizenship status of residents in each census tract so it can better protect the rights of minority voters under the Voting Rights Act. Even putting aside the laughable notion that this administration cares about minority voting rights, this argument is bunkum — the Justice Department has been enforcing that law without access to such data for decades. The last census that asked people to report their citizenship status was conducted in 1950, 15 years before the Voting Rights Act became law. What’s more, the Justice Department already has access to citizenship data through the American Community Survey, which is conducted every year.

The timing of this change is highly suspect. It comes too late to be included in a field test of the 2020 census that the government is conducting right now with 275,000 households in Providence County, R.I. In his memo, Mr. Ross sought to downplay concerns that the citizenship question would reduce response rates by claiming there was no “empirical evidence” to back up that argument. Yet, by seeking to insert the question so late in the process, he himself has prevented officials from empirically testing how people will react to it.

The evidence that does exist shows that the concerns about the citizenship question curbing participation are legitimate. The Census Bureau reported in a September memo that its surveyors were encountering significant resistance from immigrants about providing personal information to the government because they feared it would not be kept confidential. “The immigrant is not going to trust the census employee when they are continuously hearing a contradicting message from the media every day threatening to deport immigrants,” one Arabic-speaking respondent told the bureau.

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At Least Twelve States to Sue Trump Administration Over Census Citizenship Question

The Trump administration defended the citizenship question by saying it was needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, which relies on accurate estimates of voting-eligible populations.

The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in a briefing that the decision to gather citizenship data through the decennial census was “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters.”

“I think that it is going to determine the individuals in our country, and provide information that allows us to comply with our own laws and with our own procedures,” she said.

Asked whether there would be outreach to ensure participation in immigrant-heavy regions like California, Ms. Sanders said she was “not aware of those specifics.”

Ms. Sanders also said the citizenship question had “been included in every census since 1965, with the exception of 2010, when it was removed.”

In fact, various citizenship questions have appeared in many censuses since 1850, especially during periods of high immigration. But it was dropped from the 1960 general census (there was no census in 1965) and relegated in 1970 to a longer list of questions that were asked of a small minority of residents. After 2000, the question was asked only on the American Community Survey, a separate voluntary poll of a fraction of the population that is conducted more frequently than the census.

Critics noted that the citizenship question was added at the last minute — the deadline for proposing new questions for the 2020 head count is April 1 — and that it sidestepped the years of vetting undergone by every other question that will be asked. This month, they added, President Trump’s re-election campaign used the addition of a citizenship question in an emailed fund-raising appeal.

Mr. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, said that adding the question was a “reckless decision to suddenly abandon nearly 70 years of practice.” He argued that the move “will create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities that would make impossible both an accurate census and the fair distribution of federal tax dollars.”


Wilbur Ross Jr., the secretary of commerce, at a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, said the question on citizenship would help enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Erin Schaff for The New York Times

In a seven-page announcement released late Monday, Wilbur L. Ross Jr., the secretary of commerce, foresaw those concerns, and sought to allay them. Decades of experience with citizenship questions on earlier censuses and other surveys, he stated, indicate that including it on the 2020 form would not deter people from volunteering to be counted. And he noted that other democracies, from Australia to the United Kingdom, routinely ask about citizenship in their head counts without any difficulty.

Mr. Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, acknowledged that both outside experts and leaders within the bureau had been opposed to the change. But he said that “neither the Census Bureau nor the concerned stakeholders could document that the response rate would in fact decline materially.”

And although the citizenship question was not tested for inclusion on the 2020 form, he said, it is used in the American Community Survey.

Kenneth Prewitt, a director of the Census Bureau under President Clinton, dismissed the administration’s rationale that the question is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

“It’s certainly unnecessary,” said Mr. Prewitt, now a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. “The Voting Rights Act is being administered very well with data from the American Community Survey. The Justice Department has ruled on that a number of times over the last 15 years.”

The decision to add a question potentially throws a new degree of uncertainty into census preparations that already are well behind schedule and starved for money. The only full dress rehearsal of the 2020 census, unfolding this month in Providence County, R.I., has been scaled back in some areas. Tens of thousands of forms mailed to local residents this month do not contain the citizenship question.

Experts dismissed Mr. Ross’s statement that the citizenship question did not need further testing, arguing that the census and the American Community Survey differ in almost every aspect, from size to public awareness to whether a response is required. “When you do this once every 10 years, for 340 million people, you’ve got to get it right,” said William H. Frey, a University of Michigan demographer.

On Tuesday, critics of Mr. Ross’s decision made available a letter sent to Mr. Ross in January from six former directors of the Census Bureau who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The letter stated that they were “deeply concerned” that adding the citizenship question would “considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.”

“There is a great deal of evidence that even small changes in survey question order, wording and instructions can have significant, and often unexpected, consequences for the rate, quality and truthfulness of response,” said the former directors, who included Mr. Prewitt. “The effect of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census on data quality and census accuracy, therefore, is completely unknown.”

Several of the states suing the Trump administration are run by Democrats, who risk losing representation if the census undercounts people of color.

Carmen Queveda, an undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles, said on Tuesday she was not about to step out of her house to participate in a census that inquires whether she is a citizen.

“I would never answer, because I don’t have papers,” said the 46-year-old native of Guatemala, who is also the mother of a 14-year-old American boy. “Obviously, I am afraid. I have a son.”

The last official estimate of the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States, made in 2012 by the Department of Homeland Security, placed the number at 11.4 million.

At a morning E.S.L. class in Queens, N.Y., at Sunnyside Community Services, about 30 students hailing from Spanish-speaking countries, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, were asked about the citizenship question by Johan Lopez, New York City’s director of adult and immigrant services. Mr. Lopez said their answer alarmed him.

“I asked them directly how this would affect their ability to respond or whether they would even open the door,” he said. All but one “suggested that they likely wouldn’t open the door.”

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Here’s Why an Accurate Census Count Is So Important

States including Texas, Florida, Colorado and Oregon are projected to gain seats after the 2020 numbers are in. Illinois, Ohio, New York and West Virginia are among the states expected to lose seats. An undercount could shift those projections.

Lawmakers also use census data to draw congressional district boundaries within states, an often-controversial process that can help decide partisan control of the House. Census data also underpin state legislative districts and local boundaries like City Councils and school boards.

Handing out federal and state dollars

The federal government bases a large amount of its spending decisions on census data. Researchers concluded last year that in the 2015 fiscal year, 132 government programs used information from the census to determine how to allocate more than $675 billion, much of it for programs that serve lower-income families, including Head Start, Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Pell grants for college and reduced-price school lunch programs. Highway spending is also apportioned according to census data.


The calculation for determining congressional districts is based on total resident population — which means citizens and non-citizens alike.

Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

Influencing business decisions

To sell products and services, companies large and small need good information on the location of potential customers and how much money they might have to spend. The census provides the highest-quality and most consistent information on such items, and businesses have come to depend on it to make critical choices.

Census data help companies decide where to locate distribution centers to best serve their customers, where to expand or locate new stores and where they have the best chance of seeing a high return on investment. That is why business groups have been particularly concerned about the integrity of that data.

“The 2020 census is used to help construct many other data products produced by the federal government,” said Michael R. Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who writes frequently on the importance of census data for policymakers and the private sector.

“Some of those products are heavily used by businesses when determining where to open new stores and expand operations, or even what items to put on their shelves. This affects retail businesses, for sure, but businesses in many other sectors as well,” he added.

Planning for various health and wellness programs

Low response rates from any one demographic group would undermine the validity of various population-wide statistics and program planning.

Scientists use census data to understand the distribution of diseases and health concerns such as cancer and obesity across the United States population, including drilling down to race and ethnicity to identify health patterns across demographics. Public health officials then use the data to target their interventions in at-risk communities. Inaccurate census data could lead public health officials to invest in solving a problem that does not exist — or worse, to overlook one that does.

“It’s getting harder to conduct the census, due to a variety of factors, including increasing cultural & linguistic diversity, and distrust of the government,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist who directs the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “The addition of the citizenship question will make the enumerators’ jobs even harder by heightening privacy concerns and reducing participation among immigrants, who may fear the information will be used to harm them or their families.”

Gaming out Social Security

An undercount in the census could also impact forecasts about Social Security payouts, which are already increasing as a share of the federal government’s revenue.

When Congress plans for the costs of the country’s Social Security needs, lawmakers rely upon demographic projection about the population’s future: the number of children expected to be born, the number of people expected to die, and the number of people expected to immigrate. If baseline data regarding the current population are inaccurate, future projections could be skewed, causing financial challenges down the line.

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