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    Super Moderator GeorgiaPeach's Avatar
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    Aug 2006

    Why itís perfectly fine to ask about citizenship status on the census

    Why it’s perfectly fine to ask about citizenship status on the census

    The Trump administration recently announced that it will add a question to the 2020 census asking respondents about their citizenship status. The announcement has not been well-received by progressives and immigration advocates, who argue that the mere existence of the question on the form will cause Latinos to decline to fill it out and that therefore Latinos will be undercounted.
    That, in turn, could lead to fewer federal funds for programs that target that population, and perhaps even lower congressional representation. New York and California are suing the administration over the issue.
    The Blue Team freakout is unwarranted. At the end of the day, asking about citizenship poses no serious threat to the census and will produce valuable information well worth collecting.
    The administration has asserted that the question appeared on “every census since 1965,” until 2010 when it was taken out by those ne’er-do-wells in the Obama administration. The Hill declared that claim false, although it turns out the administration’s claim was basically correct. Various citizenship questions have been integral parts of the federally administered mail-and-door-knocking decennial census in 1820, 1830, 1870, 1890 to 1950, and 1980 to 2000.
    What’s more, a group of former census administrators wrote a letter to the Census Bureau suggesting that the citizenship question was “untested,” a claim that is blatantly false. You can read at least some of the results of citizenship question testing on the Census Bureau’s website. It’s been extensively tested. (It’s important that survey questions be vetted in advance because sometimes very specific wording choices can elicit unexpected responses.)
    Indeed, the exact question being proposed for the census is included in the American Community Survey and the Current Population Survey — other surveys done by the Census Bureau. And before they made it in, they were tested in focus groups and in the field.
    While it is a bit late in the process to add questions to the decennial census, the citizenship question is hardly some mysterious white whale that nobody at the Census Bureau has ever seen before.
    There’s a long history of asking about citizenship on the census

    Some news outlets have hung their objections to the Trump administration’s claim that the question has precedent on the fact that the census has not asked all householdsabout their citizenship since 1950. But that logic seems designed to mislead a casual reader.
    A version of the citizenship question was included on the longform census, a much more in-depth version of the standard questionnaire that was given to one in six households from 1980 to 2000. For the households that got that version, that was “the census,” and it did ask about citizenship.
    Of course, the political climate has changed. We have a vociferously anti-immigrant president ramping up deportations. Surely it is unprecedented to have mandatory universal citizenship questions alongside restrictive immigration and mass deportation?
    First, that take is simply historically inaccurate. The 1930 census asked about citizenship status even as, from 1929 to 1936, somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported.
    Of course, that would hardly be reassuring if answers to the citizenship question had contributed to discrimination. But these people were targeted based on their race; even Mexican-ancestry US citizens faced “repatriation.” There’s comparatively little evidence that census data, as opposed to visceral, societal racism, played a part in that episode.
    Census data was abused in the case of the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II; that’s the iconic case of misuse of such data. But it was the answer to questions about race and ethnicity that interested officials. Even US citizens with Japanese ancestry faced unconstitutional internment. More recently in 2004, the Department of Homeland Security pressed the Census Bureau for zip code-level data on Arab Americans. (That information is also available to some researchers, however, and the bureau was legally obliged to provide it.)
    If potentially off-putting questions that produce sensitive data are the issue, we might turn the question around and ask the left whether we should be removing racial and ethnic questions from the census. Racial questions date to the first census in 1790, when black slaves were counted separately from whites.
    Yet despite the long history of federal abuse of racial data, and despite the fact that many Americans refuse to respond to questions about their race, there is no outrage over those questions. We tacitly accept that we should continue to classify people using a 19th-century racial hierarchy as if that’s a normal or decent thing to do.
    Of course, there are good reasons to track race as well: We can measure the extent of racial discrimination or inequality. But surely important public policy questions also depend on our knowing the proportions of citizens and noncitizens who live in the US?
    And, as I’ve said, these citizenship questions are, like racial questions, deeply rooted in the history of the census. They began with a short question in 1820 and 1830, simply asking how many non-naturalized foreigners were in a household, a question that then got dropped for a few decades before coming back in 1870.
    The question was brought back that year because all emancipated slaves, following ratification of the 14th Amendment, were counted as new citizens, and it wasn’t clear how many such citizens there might be. In short, the citizenship question was part of the Reconstruction agenda, making sure former slaves got their due as equal citizens.
    There’s little evidence that individual questions shape response rates

    To be sure, there might be good reasons not to ask a question about citizenship. The most commonly cited reason relates to “undercounts,” or the idea that asking about citizenship may cause some people or groups to avoid responding to the census.
    But private sector survey companies have tested the addition of sensitive questions related to immigration status and found that they did not change response rates. More broadly, what research the Census Bureau has done suggests that nonresponse to surveys has very little to do with specific questions (most people have no idea what they will be asked in a survey), and everything to do with broad attitudes toward the government.
    In other words, President Donald Trump may cause a reduction in Hispanic response rates, but it won’t be because of an added citizenship question: It will be because Trump has already intangibly damaged the relationships between Hispanics and the government. That effect may be very real, but it’s unrelated to questions on the 2020 census.
    There is one way, however, that the citizenship question could impact trust. If activists tell Hispanic immigrants that answering the census honestly could result in their deportation — a totally false claim — that could reduce immigrant trust in the census. Immigrants should instead be told the truth: Federal privacy laws create extremely robust protections forbidding the Census Bureau to share individual data with any other part of the government.
    The handful of instances of census malfeasance in the past — notably involving Japanese Americans in the 1940s and, according to some advocates, Arab Americans in the 2000s — have all led to stringent increases in privacy law strictness afterward. Both of those cases involved immediate national security-relevant classes during active foreign wars. That does not justify the data sharing but does suggest the extreme conditions that in actual, historic terms may lead to a breach of, or flirtations with, privacy laws.
    The odds of the Census Bureau knuckling under and giving privileged citizenship data to law enforcement seem, realistically, slim to none. The data collected will be used by academic researchers and lawyers in court cases regarding voting rights, not to target immigrants.
    Anyway, as far as neighborhoods go, the American Community Survey, given to a sample of 2 to 4 percent of the population by the Census Bureau every year, already gives law enforcement all they need to find neighborhoods with large numbers of noncitizen immigrants. Full census data will make the numbers somewhat more precise. But cops don’t care if you shrink the margin of error on an estimate. They already know which neighborhoods have lots of immigrants.
    So none of the arguments againstasking about citizenship hold much water. The question is: Is there any positive reason to ask about citizenship? The answer is a resounding yes.
    The positive case for asking the question

    The first reason is prosaic, and it’s the one cited by the administration. The Voting Rights Act requires data about citizenship status of sufficiently fine local precision to accurately estimate the voting-eligible population of House districts. Given how concentrated immigrant communities sometimes are, this can mean that the Department of Justice needs neighborhood-level or even block-level data. For the past 18 years, data from the American Community Survey has been used for this purpose. However, it has large error margins for local areas. So, allegedly, a citizenship question is needed.
    This argument makes sense, but it’s not the one I find most compelling. (There may be cheaper and easier ways to improve annual surveys like the ACS, for instance.)
    The better argument relates to the underlying purpose of the census. It’s not just a data collection tool: It’s a tool for structuring identity. The census is a way the government says to the population, “These are the questions that we think are most important for defining your role and position in civil society.” When the census asks about race, it means race matters.
    Progressives understand this very well, which is why they advocate for the inclusion of questions about LGBTQ people in the census despite the similar potential for nonresponse by people worried about discrimination, and for data misuse. Progressives rightly understand that when the census asks about a category, it formalizes that category in our society as a relevant way to establish social position. When you don’t ask about a class of people, you can’t spot and measure inequalities between them, whether that means straight or gay, or citizen and noncitizen.
    When we think about what it means to be American, when we consider how the government should want us to socially position ourselves, the citizenship question is highly relevant. It’s even, to go a step further, optimistic.
    We may hope for a time when the sex question is economically irrelevant and we may dream of a year when the race questions are properly anachronistic. But ultimately, the citizenship question isn’t about counting who is out, but who is in: It’s about enfranchisement.
    We have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It’s not a government for the territory of the United States. It’s not a government for any random person who happens to be on one side of a border or another; it’s a system based on self-government, government by stakeholders, government by citizens.
    When we ask about citizenship, we are gently reminding Americans that their participation in the American experiment of self-government is an important part of self-identity. The nation is a body of people united, not by race, genetics, language, or ancestry, but bycitizenship. I think that’s a worthwhile thing for the Census Bureau to track.
    And besides, they have plenty of money to do it. The recent omnibus budget bill passed by Congress thwarted the president’s attempt to financially strangle the census and gave the Census Bureau an entirely satisfactory budget allocation — more money than even census advocates said was necessary. So even if the skeptics are right and the citizenship question lowers response rates a bit, the Census Bureau will have the resources it needs to do the requisite follow-up interviews.
    Far from being the illegitimate boondoggle that critics want to make it out to be, the 2020 census is shaping up to be a well-resourced one asking questions that cut to the heart of what it means to be American. I, for one, am excited to be counted.

    Lyman Stone, a Vox columnist, is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA.

    Last edited by GeorgiaPeach; 08-03-2018 at 04:51 PM.
    Matthew 19:26
    But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.

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