CIANA Explains: What If the 2020 United States Census Asked About Citizenship?


2010 United States Census Largest Ancestry Map. Source: US Census Bureau, Census and ACS 2010 special tabulation.

As part of a multi-week series, CIANA’s legal and outreach team will discuss all you need to know about topics affecting immigrants and what you can do to help. Read the first post in the series about Public Charge here.

The Trump administration wants to add a new question to the 2020 Census, one that has not been asked since 1950. According to the Justice Department, the proposed question on the national census on citizenship will help enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prevents voter discrimination. By identifying who is a citizen, and therefore who is eligible to vote, the change aims to better ensure the protection of minority and non-English speaking voters.

But critics of the change believe that the citizenship question will have an adverse effect on immigrant communities. Given recent anti-immigrant policies and sentiments, many immigrants and allies are concerned that asking about citizenship status will deter non-citizens from filling out the census altogether. Although the citizenship question will not ask if the respondent is in the United States legally, many unauthorized immigrants may not answer the question out of fear of deportation. Immigrants who are authorized to be in the US might skip the question as they have done on surveys such as the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The citizenship question will also affect states in which immigrants live. According to the US Constitution, the census is required to count every individual living in the country. This number is used to draw congressional districts, allot federal funding to states, and determine the number of members of the Electoral College. A misrepresentation of resident numbers would diminish representation in Congress and the electoral college and funding from states with high immigrant populations, thus cutting political representation and funding to provide social services and public benefits that so many citizens and residents rely on.

Fortunately, actions have already been taken to remove the citizenship question from the census before 2020.