Report: Trump’s citizenship question in 2020 census could undercount 24 million people

Immigrant families are nervous. States could lose billions of dollars. So why are we asking about citizenship?

MCALLEN, TX - FEBRUARY 23:  Immigrant Respite Center staff receive Central American families after they were released from U.S. immigration officials on February 23, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - FEBRUARY 23: Immigrant Respite Center staff receive Central American families after they were released from U.S. immigration officials on February 23, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A new 2020 decennial census policy means some 24.3 million people could skip answering the critical form if they believe their names and other personal information could be shared with law enforcement, according to a Brookings Institute analysis released Friday.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced late Monday that it will restore a question about citizenship to the 2020 census questionnaire, at the behest of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“In so doing, Ross and Sessions explicitly tied the collection of 2020 Census information to federal law enforcement,” says Brookings’s Robert Shapiro. “That’s what makes his directive so remarkable and so dangerous.”

Federal law, specifically Title 13 of the federal code, requires census information be kept confidential, meaning neither the DOJ nor the Department of Homeland Security can access this information. During World War II, the Bureau did give Secret Service the names and addresses of some Japanese-Americans, which was used to help the military relocate them to internment camps. But in 1978, the law was changed and now prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing this data with other government agencies.


Shapiro, who was the Under Secretary of Commerce overseeing the 2000 decennial Census, noted in his analysis that even in an instance where a respondent threatened President Bill Clinton’s life in their census form, the Bureau did not provide this information to the Secret Service.

“But most Americans have never heard of Title 13,” says Shapiro. For that reason, millions of people — who are either undocumented, have a loved one who is undocumented, or are just members of groups who have been given cause to be fearful under this administration — could skip answering the decennial census this time around. Plenty of people are already nervous, which the Bureau knows all too well.

“The possibility that the Census could give my information to internal security and immigration could come and arrest me for not having documents terrifies me,” one respondent told Mikelyn Meyers, a researcher at the Census Bureau, last year. Another told Meyers, “Particularly with our current political climate, the Latino community will not sign up because they will think that Census will pass their information on and people can come looking for them.”

ThinkProgress reached out to the Department of Commerce (DOC) about the Brookings report. “Because a lower response rate would lead to increased non-response follow up costs and less accurate responses, this factor was an important consideration in the decision-making process,” said a spokesperson. “Secretary Ross found that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate.”

Undercounting people in the decennial census has serious implications. As many as 1.5 million people of color were unaccounted for in 2010 census, a problem that could be further exacerbated by the decision to restore a question about citizenship.


This decennial census data is perhaps best known as the means by which congressional seats, electors in each state, and how voting districts are drawn. It’s also used in most national surveys. “If a change to the Census causes problems, that effect will ripple through subsequent attempts to measure pretty much everything,” said Huffington Post polling editor Ariel Edwards-Levy.

Inaccurate decennial census counts will also affect federal assistance programs, like Medicaid (health insurance for low-income and people with disabilities), Section 8 housing, and food assistance. For 12 states whose undocumented populations account for more than 3.5 percent of the national average, this means a smaller share of roughly $800 billion in annual federal funds, according to Brookings. This will “hurt red states as much or more than blue states,” says Shapiro.

The Donald Trump campaign already is capitalizing on the citizenship question. But one immigrant leader in Texas, which is one of twelve states subject to lose a lot of federal dollars through further undercounting, says she’ll be answering the 2020 census — but she intends to leave citizenship question blank. She is encouraging others to do the same.

“I am not afraid of him or of his immigrant-hating supporters,” Jessica Azua of the Texas Organizing Project told Dallas News. “My family and I will answer the census. We will not answer the citizenship question. I will urge everyone who can hear my voice to not answer the citizenship question.”

ThinkProgress asked DOC about the implications of this tactic and the spokesperson said “[a]ll residents are required by law to respond but DOJ, not Commerce, is responsible for enforcement. Please direct further questions to DOJ.”


Given the implications of undercounting, many lawmakers are concerned. Four Democratic senators announced Friday that they are calling for a hearing on the 2020 census questionnaire, first reported by NPR. Sens. Kamala Harris (CA), Tom Carper (DE), Gary Peters (MI) and Claire McCaskill (MO) are calling on the Commerce secretary to testify. Already, California is suing over the citizenship question, arguing it’s unconstitutional.