Prepare to leave a blank in the 2020 Census

Recently, ICE agents have devastated several immigrant families in our area whose children attend school with ours by taking away for deportation their major bread winner because of a minor vehicular violation. In the same period, and much more publicized, a new question to be inserted in the 2020 U.S. Census has stirred up major controversy. Introduced by the Department of Justice, the question asks whether the respondent and each member of his or her household is a U.S. citizen. In a country with a sustained history of welcoming immigrants, the question might provide a richer notion of our population’s composition. But under the current administration, with its heartless parade of anti-immigrant rhetoric and ICE actions, there are good reasons for immigrants and mixed-status families living here to fear the 2020 Census citizenship question. 

For those, like me, whose high school history is rusty, our Constitution, though brief, sets out a numerically based democracy, with the apportionment of taxes, legislators and government spending based on population. No mention is made of connecting taxes, legislators or spending to citizenship status. The Constitution mandates that the census be conducted every 10 years, starting three years after the first meeting of the Congress. Thus, 24 national census counts have described a growing and shifting population, which has been used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives, the drawing of political districts at the federal, state and local level, and the annual distribution during that decade of federal dollars to local communities for everything from infrastructure to schools and hospitals. 

Historically, the Census Bureau, which operates under the supervision of the Department of Commerce, has set the highest standard for reliability, and its nonpartisan information is used by government agencies, nonprofits, private companies and individuals for a range of research. While census questions have changed over time, the Data Quality Act ensures that new questions are tested for wording and placement before being incorporated in the census. 

But Congress mandated that the 2020 census be conducted with a budget of $12.5 billion, the same as the 2010 census, and the citizenship question was introduced too late for the Department of Commerce to field test it. Moreover, the census will include new telephone and internet response options, in addition to the traditional paper questionnaire. Given the public’s rightful suspicion of cyber-security risks, the digital divide affecting rural, low income, minority and older households, and the growing anti-government sentiment in some communities, the challenges to obtaining a response rate demanded by a fair and accurate census will be unprecedented. 

The Department of Justice has argued that the citizenship question is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act and prevent voter fraud (remember those 3 million illegal votes for Hillary?). Some supporters of the new question also hope that it will make possible redrawing of legislative districts using citizenship rather than population counts — a change that would disadvantage states with high immigrant populations, such as New York, California, Arizona and Texas — as well as lead to redistricting to the benefit of Republicans.  Against the change, in lawsuits and in congressional testimony, former directors of the Census Bureau have warned that questioning residents about their immigration status or citizenship will “inevitably jeopardize the overall accuracy of the population count.” Last month, with the approach of the April 1 deadline for making changes to the 2020 census, 17 states and seven cities joined in a lawsuit to block the citizenship question from being inserted in the 2020 census. 

This and other suits may delay the census, whether or not they ultimately eliminate the citizenship question. In the meantime, there is something each of us can prepare to do to make our communities safer for our immigrant neighbors. As we anticipate answering our census questions, let’s remember our immigrant parents, grandparents or great-grandparents by planning to leave the citizenship question blank.

This idea has already gained some traction on the internet as #leaveitblank. Leaving a single question blank doesn’t invalidate the remainder of our responses. At the most, according to one Bureau of Census employee, the Bureau may spend taxpayers’ money on a follow-up contact to get the missing question filled in. But, assuming a widespread lack of response to the citizenship question, the Bureau is unlikely to use its limited budget to fill in answers to a question that has already aroused such controversy, particularly given the deadline for getting the numbers ready for apportionment. And, although blanks can lower the reliability of the survey, there are statistical techniques to compensate for data holes.

2020 may seem a long time from now. In the meantime, our immigrant neighbors are suffering from the policies of the current administration in ways we often don’t notice. Letting them know we intend to leave the citizenship question blank is one simple way of showing our solidarity.


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. What interests her these days are the complications of civil society.