What you need to know about the Census’ citizenship question

In this March 15, 2010, file photo, copies of the 2010 Census forms in Phoenix. The 2020 U.S. Census will add a question about citizenship status. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this March 15, 2010, file photo, copies of the 2010 Census forms in Phoenix. The 2020 U.S. Census will add a question about citizenship status. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

The Trump administration’s plans to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census got immediate pushback from Democratic lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates, who said the question instills fear in immigrant communities and will lead to an undercount of the national population.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced on March 26 that the 2020 Census will inquire about citizenship, based on a request from the U.S. Justice Department. The department said the data is critical for its enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory voting practices or procedures. Congress delegates the Commerce secretary the authority to determine which questions will be asked on the decennial census.

Since the announcement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, alleging the citizenship question violates the U.S. Constitution and federal laws. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman plans to lead a multi-state lawsuit to "preserve a fair and accurate Census."

PolitiFact decided to explore the issue and reached out to demographers to answer key questions about the Census’ citizenship question. Here’s what we found.

Has a citizenship question been asked before?

Yes. The first Census was conducted in 1790 and asked for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household, including slaves. (President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson both were skeptical of the 3.9 million count, expecting the number of inhabitants to be higher.)

A question about U.S. citizenship status appeared in censuses in 1820 and 1830; in 1870, for males 21 years of age and older; and has appeared since 1890, with the exception of 1960, according to 2009 U.S. Census Bureau information.

However, the last time all households were asked about U.S. citizenship was in the 1950 Census. That Census questioned where individuals were born, and "if foreign-born — is he naturalized?"

From 1970 to 2000, the Census Bureau used two questionnaires: a long-form and short-form.

Most households received the short-form questionnaire, and about 1 in 6 households received a long-form questionnaire that included a question on citizenship. The 2010 Census only used a short-form questionnaire with 10 questions. It did not ask about citizenship.

The Census Bureau in the mid 2000s began gathering demographic and socioeconomic information, including citizenship status, through the American Community Survey, or ACS. The survey collects information from about 3.5 million households a year.

If it’s been asked before, why is it controversial now?

The Trump administration has taken a hard line on illegal immigration, and immigrant advocates said that means people don’t trust that their information will remain anonymous.

"I think it will have the effect of suppressing the count and it will lead people to try to stay out of the Census rather than get in it," said Steve Murdock, a Rice University sociologist and demographer and Census Bureau director from 2007 to 2009, under President George W. Bush.

Census information is used for the allocation of federal funding and to determine the number of representatives from each state. So an undercount has serious repercussions.

"If the census counts are biased or flawed, this could affect the number of representatives states have in the House of Representatives," said Jennifer Lynne Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University.

Sending all households a Census form asking about citizenship status can depress immigrant participation rate, said Phil Sparks, co-director of The Census Project, a collaborative of national, state, and local organizations which use Census data for policy and research.

A September 2017 memorandum from researchers at the Census Bureau said they had noticed a "recent increase in respondents spontaneously expressing concerns about confidentiality" during 2017 pretesting studies.

Researchers said they heard concerns "about topics like the ‘Muslim ban,’ discomfort ‘registering’ other household members by reporting their demographic characteristics, the dissolution of the ‘DACA’ (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) program, repeated references to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), etc."

Van Hook said that it’s not yet clear whether the fears noted by the researchers are widespread or how such fears would affect response rates if the citizenship question was added to the 2020 Census.

"However, if adding the citizenship question reduces coverage of the foreign-born population, it could reduce the amount of federal and state resources allocated to communities that have large shares of immigrants, and it could also reduce representation of states with large numbers of immigrants," she said.

The U.S. Commerce secretary in his letter said his department was not able to determine how the inclusion of the question would impact responsiveness. "However, even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns," Ross wrote.

Can Census citizenship information be shared with other government agencies, including ICE?

A "72-Year Rule" prevents the public disclosure of personally identifiable information to any other individual or agency until 72 years after its collection.

Only the individual named on the record, or their legal heir, can access the information before the 72-year period, according to the Census Bureau. After that, records are released to the public by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

However, the Los Angeles Times in 2007 reported findings by two scholars concerning the Census Bureau’s disclosure of confidential information during World War II, to help the U.S. government identify Japanese Americans.

The disclosures were legal under wartime legislation, and privacy protections are now stronger, a Census Bureau spokeswoman then told the Los Angeles Times.