A Burning Question

To the many politically charged topics in America today, a new one has been added: the census. Every 10 years, the government in Washington sends a questionnaire to every household in the country. The next survey is planned for 2020. It not only determines the number of residents, but also serves as a basis for the regular review of electoral districts. The allocation of federal funding is also based on the census.

This week, the Department of Commerce announced that the next census slated for 2020 would include a new question, that of citizenship. In many countries this is controversial. The German census of 2011 included a similar question at the very beginning. But in the U.S., this measurement caused controversy because it might change the political landscape in the long run. A number of states governed by Democrats, California and New York among them, have announced that they will sue the government. They consider the new survey method a political maneuver by the Trump administration.

Illegal Immigrants Probably Will Not Fill Out the Survey, Which Will Skew the Results

In particular, immigrants without valid papers especially are not expected to fill out the questionnaire because they are afraid that their data will be passed on to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and that they could be deported. “I would never answer, because I don’t have papers,” a woman from Guatemala told The New York Times. Even legal immigrants might think twice about passing their data on to the government, says a spokesman for the organization, National Immigration Forum. The mistrust and fear are simply too great.

According to estimates by the Pew Institute, about 22 million U.S. residents currently do not have American citizenship. About half of them do not have valid residence status. If these residents do not take part in the census, then household surveys will be seriously skewed. States in which immigrants make up a large portion of the population, such as California, may lose seats in Congress, a result which would likely take place at the expense of the Democratic Party.

The actions of the Trump administration are unconstitutional, writes Xavier Becerra, attorney general of California, in his lawsuit against the decision. The administration’s “arbitrary” act would undermine the mandate to count every resident in the country. Maura Healey, attorney general of Massachusetts, spoke of a “blatant and illegal attempt” of the administration to use the census to achieve its political agenda.

In the census, Americans are regularly asked about their ethnic origins. But the citizenship question was last included in 1950. Government representatives defended the measurement claiming that getting exact data was of utmost importance in cracking down on election fraud. According to a report by ProPublica, career officials with the Census Bureau were opposed to the addition of the question. But the decision was made after the Department of Justice intervened.

It is debatable whether the participation of immigrants in the census will actually decrease. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross points out that the citizenship question has been included in other surveys for some time now, and that lower participation rates have not been observed. But those surveys are not sent to every resident. In addition, there are historical reasons for the skepticism of the immigrants. During World War II, the Census Bureau passed along the names and addresses of residents of Japanese ancestry to the secret service. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Census Bureau also sent the data of Japanese Americans to the U.S. Army. Thousands landed in internment camps.

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