There's nothing wrong with a census question about citizenship

  • Written by Marc A. Thiessen
  • Published in Opinion
Featured There's nothing wrong with a census question about citizenship

The Trump administration is being sued over its plans to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census, which California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) says "is not just a bad idea - it is illegal." No, it's not.

There is nothing wrong with asking about citizenship. Canada asks a citizenship question on its census. So do Australia and many other U.S. allies.

The U.S. government asked about citizenship for 130 years - from 1820 to 1950 - as part of the decennial "short form" census and continued to do so in the "long form" survey - distributed to 1 in 6 people - through 2000, when the long form was replaced by the annual American Community Survey.

The ACS goes to about 2.6 percent of the population each year and asks about citizenship to this day.

So why are many on the left up in arms over a question that should be relatively uncontroversial? Answer: Money and power. Democrats are worried that adding a citizenship question will dampen participation in the census by illegal immigrants, reducing the total population count in the Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas where illegal immigrants are largely concentrated.

Because census data is used to determine the distribution of federal funds, that could decrease the cities' share of more than $675 billion a year in federal funding. And because census data is also used to create and apportion congressional seats, Democrats fear that if illegal immigrants don't participate it could shift power from Democratic cities to rural communities, which tend to vote Republican.

At least, that's Democrats' theory.

But there is no evidence that a citizenship question would dramatically impact census participation. The census is not like a telemarketing survey where people have the option of adding their names to a "do not call" list.

Everyone is required by law to respond. If a household does not fill out the census form, then census workers visit that household to gather census data.

If they still cannot get a household to cooperate, nonrespondents can be fined or prosecuted - though in practice they rarely are.

Usually, the Census Bureau instead asks neighbors about the household in order to get as much accurate information as possible. This may add costs to the census, but it is not likely to produce inaccurate data.

Moreover, if asking about citizenship is a deterrent to participation by illegal immigrants, then what about the existing census question that asks whether respondents are "of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" - the only ethnic group specifically called out.

Respondents are required by law to tell the government whether they are of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or other Hispanic origin, which they are required to list ("print origin, for example, Argentinean, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, Spaniard, and so on").

If that does not deter the participation of many illegal immigrants, how would a question on citizenship?

Marc A Thiessen writes for the Washington Post

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