Congressional lawmakers, mayors and civil rights activists are ramping up efforts to urge federal officials to reject a request to include a controversial question about citizenship in the upcoming Census.
With only weeks before the deadline to submit questions for the 2020 Census, the groups are calling on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to turn down a request from the Justice Department to ask respondents if they are citizens.
“This is not the time to parachute in and try to throw something in at the last minute, particularly something so incendiary that is likely to impact people’s willingness to participate," said Terry Ao Minnis, director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
The Justice Department asked Census officials in December to add the question to the Census form. That request is pending. The agency has until March 31 to submit Census questions to Congress.
Minnis and other opponents say adding the question is unnecessary and will lead to an inaccurate count because some people may be afraid to fill out the form.
“I am hopeful that Secretary Ross recognizes how damaging adding that question to the Census would be — both at this late hour and just in general given the climate of fear that is very much heightened as we head into the next Census,’’ said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and Census expert. “I cannot think of anything more damaging to the success of the next Census than adding a citizen question at this point.’’
Some supporters of adding the question argue it’s a modest change and say the opposition is exaggerated.
“The Trump administration is simply trying to get accurate information on the American population,’’ Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in an op-ed in USA TODAY last month. “It’s not new; previous Censuses have asked this question. Hostility to this limited reform is overblown, though unfortunately to be expected."
Al Fontenot, Jr., the associate director for Decennial Census Programs, said the Census Bureau is reviewing the request and agency attorneys are “examining the justification for the data needed by the Department of Justice.”
“We are focused on having the final list of questions submitted to Congress, which is our legal requirement by March 31,'' he said last Friday.
Plans for the nationwide count have been underway for years. The count, which takes place every 10 years, is key to allocating federal resources to communities. Non-citizens are included in the count.
Justice Department officials asked the Census Bureau in December to “reinstate’’ the citizenship question on the survey. They said the information would help in enforcing a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The provision — Section 2 — protects against discrimination in voting.
“To fully enforce those requirements, the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected,’’ officials wrote in the Dec. 12 letter.
The letter was first reported by ProPublica in December.
Voting rights groups dismiss that argument, saying the question of citizenship has nothing to do with protecting against discrimination at the polls.
“The reality is the Department of Justice and outside groups has been enforcing the Voting Rights Act without this question on the Census form," said Minnis.
The citizenship question is included in the American Community Survey (ACS), a sample survey conducted annually to provide updated demographic information. But it has not been on the short form that most people receive during the decennial population survey since 1950.
Mayors, advocacy groups and voting rights organizations said adding the question could be counterproductive if federal officials want to get an accurate count.
“In the community of folks who get nervous about their immigration status — word will spread like wild fire and they will immediately go dark and go back into the shadows and you’re never going to count them…,’’ said John Giles, a Republican mayor from Mesa, Ariz. “So that’s about the dumbest idea I’ve heard in a long time.’’
Giles and others discussed the issue at a recent meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. A bipartisan group of mayors plans to send a letter to Ross urging him to reject the request.
“It is absolutely the wrong direction especially under the conditions that currently exist,’’ said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, a Democrat. “It shouldn't even be a question that should be considered.’’
Jacques Roy, a Democrat and mayor of Alexandria, La., said minority communities are already under counted and adding a citizenship question won’t help.
“Citizenship questions may drive less accurate responses to an already suspicious household," he said. “The data sought about citizenship is, of course, not wrong — indeed, it is needed — but we need to think about our census goal: getting honest, accurate counts."
More than 125 congressional Democrats, including Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, wrote Ross last month also calling for him to reject the request.
Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said many are concerned about why the agency wants to add the question.
“Is this a backdoor way to dumb down the Census count or to arrest people who might have some immigration issues?’’ he said.