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2020 Census Will Reinstate Question On Citizenship Status


We have a major announcement tonight about the upcoming 2020 census. The Commerce Department, which oversees the census, says the questionnaire will include a question about citizenship. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers demographics and all things census-related. And he joins us now to explain what this means. Hi, Hansi.


SHAPIRO: Why is the Commerce Department adding a citizenship question to the census?

WANG: Well, the Commerce Department says it's responding to a request it's received from the Justice Department, which sent a letter back in December saying that it needed to add a citizen question to the census in order to get a better count of citizens in the country, specifically voting-age citizens, because the Justice Department says it needs to have better data to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, specifically provisions to prevent racial discrimination. But a lot of civil rights advocates have various questions about this request, especially the time that this was requested and that the Voting Rights Act - enforcement of it has relied on estimates ever since the Voting Rights Act was enacted.

SHAPIRO: It's not hard to imagine a scenario in which undocumented people would not fill out the census for fear of writing down that they don't have citizenship. What would the implications of that be?

WANG: Well, this is the really big question. A lot of census watchers, former Census Bureau directors I've spoken to, a lot of Census experts have said - have told me that they're very, very concerned that there already is a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, that already folks are very concerned about giving personal information to the federal government, that now - that if there is a citizenship question as it's been - as the Commerce Department now is announcing, that could further discourage a lot of immigrants. Not only those who are undocumented but anyone who maybe has ties to folks who are undocumented may not want to associate or participate in the census. And therefore, they would not be counted, and that has direct impacts on how people are represented in the country.

Those - these census numbers - all of these census numbers are used to reapportion seats in Congress, specifically the House of Representatives. And also, these numbers have impact on how billions of dollars are distributed around the country and, you know, go down from the federal level all the way down to the local level of how school districts figure out how to divide up resources. So this could have a really big impact if immigrants are not participating in the census in 2020.

SHAPIRO: Has the census ever asked before whether people are U.S. citizens or not?

WANG: Yes. Citizenship is not a new topic. A smaller Census Bureau survey, the American Community Survey, asks about citizenship every year. And that survey goes out to 3.1 - 3.5, rather - million households. But the last time that all U.S. households were asked about it on a census form was back in 1950. So this would be a really big - this is a really big change that the Commerce Department has - is announcing tonight that - the first time in decades that all residents in the United States will be asked maybe some form of a question of, if foreign born, is the person naturalized? That was what was asked in 1950. We'll see how they word this question in 2020.

SHAPIRO: In just the last few seconds, is this the final word, or can it be challenged?

WANG: Well, civil rights groups have been warning over these past few weeks that they are preparing to do lawsuits in response to try to stop a citizenship question of being added.

SHAPIRO: All right, NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, thanks very much.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.