OPINION
03/29/2018 05:45 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2018

A Census Question About Citizenship Should Worry You, No Matter Your Immigration Stance

I found myself beaming with excitement back in 2010 as I tore open the envelope that contained the U.S. census and its accompanying instructions.

For my roommates, all 10 of them, this was nothing but a complicated chore that the federal government had sent our community-style home on the outskirts of Florida State University. Given my overenthusiasm about the survey, I was delegated to complete and mail the form back as quickly as possible.

Of course, the prospect of completing the census did not excite me out of my sheer passion for politics and government. Instead, the census provided an opportunity to satiate my eagerness to engage civically with the United States; after all, I was fully aware that my lack of immigration status would keep me from fulfilling many of the duties and responsibilities bestowed on U.S. citizens.

And yet, the census gave me the feeling that for once I too could be counted as part of this country.

All of that could change in a not-so-distant future.

The Department of Commerce has decided to add a question about U.S. citizenship to the 2020 census, sparking a massive backlash from immigration advocates, civil rights groups and even members of Congress who fear that the question could skew results by discouraging immigrants and other minority groups from completing the form.

A citizenship-related question has not appeared on all census forms since 1950. That is why many lawmakers, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), have taken to Twitter to decry its inclusion, stating that “politics has no place in the census.” Meanwhile, six past directors of the Census Bureau, who’ve served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, have stated they are “deeply concerned” that the question would “considerably increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration.”

This question about U.S. citizenship could have damaging effects on our nation. Not only would taxpayers see their states losing millions of dollars over inaccurate data, but it could lead to President Donald Trump’s already supercharged deportation force to request additional resources, should it determine that too many noncitizens are residing in the United States. 

This is not without precedent.

In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau admitted that it had shared data that aided military efforts to detain Japanese-Americans in prison camps during World War II. Even more troubling: the fact that the census handed the Secret Service the personal information of 79 Japanese-Americans in the Washington, D.C., area to aid investigations of potential threats against the president.

The census gave me the feeling that for once I too could be counted as part of this country.

After 9/11, the Census Bureau turned over data of Arab-Americans to the Department of Homeland Security, which included “detailed information on how many people of Arab backgrounds live in certain ZIP codes.” While this was technically legal, Hermann Habermann, deputy director of the Census Bureau at the time, expressed concern about how information given to law enforcement agencies may be used. The information was ultimately handed over to DHS, disregarding warnings from previous census directors that such cooperation with law enforcement was “difficult to explain to the public” and violated the principles of the agency.

Furthermore, an inaccurate census could have congressional consequences. For instance, it could curtail Texas’ “projected gain of three congressional seats in Congress,” according to The Texas Tribune. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then keep in mind that it was Latinos in Texas who led the state to gain three congressional seats after the 2010 census.

Then there is the question of legality. Xavier Becerra, California attorney general and a Trump nemesis, has filed a lawsuit against the Commerce Department, arguing that the Constitution mandates that the government produce an “actual enumeration” of the total population, regardless of citizenship status. In short, Becerra deems the inclusion of the citizenship question as “illegal.”

We are paying for this data to be collected and tabulated with our very own tax dollars, and now we risk it being skewed for possible political gain.

The chilling effect the citizenship question might have on immigrant communities is already being felt. The New York Times’ Miriam Jordan reported this week how Carmen Queveda, an undocumented immigrant in California who is also the mother of a U.S. citizen, stated that she “would never answer, because [she] don’t have papers .… Obviously, I am afraid.” Another undocumented immigrant in California, Cesar Morio, told the Times that he knows “that no parent in [his] neighborhood is going to be opening the door for anyone doing a survey.”

As a collective, we should all be outraged about the inclusion of a U.S. citizenship question on the 2020 census. We are paying for this data to be collected and tabulated with our very own tax dollars, and now we risk it being skewed for possible political gain.

So be sure to call out empty-suit politicians, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who called the public’s concern over the contents of the 2020 census an “absurd freakout.” The census should not be seen as a simple form in the mail or a friendly conversation with a pollster at your doorstep, but rather as a tool that enables fair representation and understanding of the composition of our country.

We should not allow political agendas to take a grip on the data that is used to benefit us as a nation. If you are outraged by this development, then express your anger by writing letters to your local newspaper or websites and calling your members of Congress. This should be of concern for all of us, regardless of which side of the immigration issue you stand on.

Juan Escalante is an immigrant advocate and online strategist who has been fighting for the Dream Act and pro-immigration policies at all levels of government for the past 10 years.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on March 22.
Mark Wilson via Getty Images
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on March 22.
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