This month the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a citizenship question should be included in the 2020 census. This question has been part of our census since 1820 until 2010 when the Obama administration removed it. It was first included at the request of Thomas Jefferson “for the purpose of more exactly distinguishing the increase of population by birth and immigration.” So it’s not new.
Please note that the citizenship question doesn’t ask about a person’s legal status; it has nothing to do with immigration enforcement. The census data is strictly controlled and can only be used for statistical analysis.
Article I, Section 2, of our Constitution mandates that a census (“enumeration”) be taken every 10 years. The information is used for a myriad of purposes. One is to determine how many members of the House of Representatives a state may have.
So, why all the uproar about including a citizenship question in the decennial census?
Federal law restricts voting rights to only U.S. citizens. It stands to reason that the number of people representing us in Congress should be based upon the number of citizens as opposed to the overall population. After all, if non-citizens are prohibited from voting and aren’t suppose to have the rights and privileges of citizenship why would anybody want to base the number of House members upon an inflated number? Basing the number of House districts in Congress on total population dilutes the representation of actual citizens. The Supreme Court found in Reynolds v. Sims, “to the extent that a citizen’s right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen.”
Those opposed to including the citizenship question are saying if you include it, non-citizens will not respond to the census questionnaire. They suggest non-citizens (especially those who have entered the county illegally) will be concerned that they could be rounded up and deported. As mentioned above, there’s a prohibition on such use of the census data. Besides statistics show that there was approximately the same response rate for the 2010 census (that didn’t have the citizenship question) as the previous decennial censuses.
So why the opposition? Perhaps we’re seeing a continuation of what’s happening all too often these days: efforts being driven by politicians who hope to gain votes and more power while further splitting the nation and instilling fear and distrust among our population.
It’s important to know how many people live in our country, citizens and non-citizens. It’s also important to know their ethnic background. Under the Voting Rights Act we’re required to protect minority voters; drawing voting districts so they have the opportunity to elect representatives of their choosing. We’re even required to provide translators at polling places based upon the ethnic make up of the population. In Harris County that’s over four different languages.
The bottom line? We need to determine the overall population and the number of citizens. Doing so will ensure the appropriate number of House districts in each state without diluting the voting power of citizens.