Census battle over citizenship question leaves immigration activists with their hands tied

"The overall environment has a chilling effect and the citizenship question doesn’t help at all."

President Donald Trump is trying his hardest to ensure that every American will be forced to report their citizenship status to the U.S. government during the 2020 census — a possibility that has left immigrant groups unsure of how to approach the annual national survey.

Last Wednesday, Trump invoked executive privilege, refusing to share certain documents House Democrats have requested to investigate the inclusion of the citizenship question on the census. Hours later, the House Oversight Committee voted to hold Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for their refusal to comply with subpoenas.

Democrats argue that asking all respondents to report their citizenship status on the standard census for the first time since 1950 would discourage undocumented individuals from participating, resulting in a population undercount. Census data is used for a multitude of key government enterprises, from where to build new roads to how to draw Congressional maps. The latter is especially concerning to Democrats, who fear Republicans could suppress minority voters and give themselves an advantage in upcoming elections.

The Trump administration, however, maintains the question is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act, claiming that the data will help prohibit discrimination when drawing district lines. But three federal judges have found that rationale contrived. Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan wrote in his January decision that the Justice Department “never before claimed that it had been hampered in any way” by a lack of detailed information on citizenship.


The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the the citizenship question by the end of the month, but not before the Census Bureau launched a test last Thursday to examine how its inclusion will impact responses. Approximately 480,000 housing units around the country will receive a questionnaire with households randomly assigned to one of two versions of the questionnaire: one with the citizenship question included, the other without. These results are expected to be completed by October.

So where does that leave the groups that advocate on behalf of immigrants and want to ensure their community members are counted? For now at least, their hands are tied.

Many people are not aware of the census in the first place, and a tremendous amount of resources is spent on outreach and keeping communities informed. With the citizenship question in limbo until at least the end of June, that reduces the amount of time groups can provide outreach.

“We are waiting to see what happens and then we’ll decide accordingly,” Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) San Fransisco Bay office told ThinkProgress. “I tell my staff we are planning to encourage participation in the census the same way we did in 2010. Because it’s really important that all of these communities be counted. This matters now and well beyond this president’s time in office.”

But, Billoo emphasizes, that’s not to say she isn’t extremely hesitant.

“We recognize, of course, that we could not discourage participation in the census,” she added. “The option isn’t discourage versus encourage. It is neutral or silent versus encourage. Because even though I do want my community to be counted, it would also weigh heavily on me if I weren’t confident in the safety, security, and secrecy of the census data.”


“It wasn’t that long ago that census data was being used to target the Japanese,” Billoo said, referring to the 1940 census, when bureau officials cooperated with the government to provide data on Japanese Americans.

Many members of the Muslim community are living out this reality every single day. For years, FBI agents have routinely surveilled Muslim Americans, and the attendant anxieties that arise from this practice have only heightened under the Trump administration. With so much in limbo at the moment, the most they can do is be optimistic.

It is really incredibly impressive how many resources go into ensuring that communities participate in the census,” Billoo added. “It would be my hope that comparable resources would be spent on protecting communities.”

While undercounting immigrant communities is a key concern, it is nothing new.

“The reality is this has always been a problem,” Tomas Kennedy, political director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition told ThinkProgress. The coalition is a member of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), and like CAIR, is waiting on the Supreme Court’s decision. Until then, the organization is reflexively apprehensive to participation because people, specifically in the undocumented community, have always been afraid to fill out the census.

“They have always been afraid to put their name on any list,” Kennedy said. “Any time we’ve done any municipal ID push or even driver’s licenses, there are people who are worried are being put on a database. There are definitely people we speak to in a lot of our meetings and workshops that express an added fear of participating in the census.”

“The overall environment has a chilling effect and the citizenship question doesn’t help at all,” he added.

Indeed, as the Urban Institute found in a recent report, the damage may have already been done.

“Even if the citizenship question is not included in the final list of questions, current discourse about immigration could suppress participation,” the report states.


In spite of this the report states there are still ways in which the issue of undercounting can be addressed. One example the Urban Institute cites “strategic outreach” to communities likely to be undercounted as way to combat undercounting. Groups like CAIR and FIRM are likely to follow that route but for now, they wait.