Why Is the 2020 Census Suddenly So Controversial?

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There are many good reasons to conduct a census. Census data is used to draw congressional districts and determine representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition, the average 30-year-old has already moved six times in their life. Because of this, it’s important to keep accurate records of how many people are living in which locations. However, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently made an announcement that the 2020 Census would include a question about citizenship status. This announcement was met with immediate backlash and alarm.

Already, 12 states have stated they would sue to block the Trump administration from adding this type of question to the next census. People are concerned that with a question regarding citizenship, immigrants will be scared of participating. If this happens, it will not only lead to an inaccurate count but will result in a loss of federal funds and political representation in states, like New York and California, where immigrants are disproportionately assembled.

Research from the Gartner Group shows that about 15% of all paper documents will be misplaced, while 7.5% will be lost altogether. However, many immigrants — including undocumented immigrants — are scared of being caught without identification.

Betsy Plum, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition explained to the Voice, “Immigrant communities, whether documented or undocumented, naturalized or not, are feeling so much fear already due to the xenophobic rhetoric coming out of the White House. This move just puts a bull’s-eye right on the immigrant community.”

Other critics of the recently added question say the inclusion of this question would interrupt years of planning that go into deciding which questions are included in the census. They express concerns that there was not enough time to put the citizenship question through the testing process that census questions have gone through in the past to ensure the data collected is accurate.

And it’s not just undocumented immigrants people are concerned about, it’s legal immigrants too. Several of the states suing the Trump administration are run by Democrats, who are at risk of losing representation if this question leads to an undercounting of people of color.

While various citizenship questions have appeared in the census since 1850, after 2000 the only question regarding citizenship was asked on the American Community Survey, which polls only a fraction of the American population.

Along with suing the Trump administration, many states have started campaigns to oppose the citizenship question. These campaigns, like New York’s #NewYorkCounts2020 campaign, are lead by various cultural and minority advocacy groups, unions and educators.

According to Plum, the hopes of these campaigns and lawsuits is to show immediate resistance while working with partners in communities to ensure people know they have the right to be counted in the census.