President Barack Obama's former director of the U.S. Census Bureau has joined with Democratic groups to lead the charge in opposing attempts by the Trump administration to include questions about citizenship on the agency's decennial census questionnaire.
The issue has potentially far reaching consequences. It could be decisive in deciding the apportionment of House districts, the number of votes each state gets in the electoral college, and the allocation of over $700 billion in federal funding. Those on the left have argued that if the question of citizenship is included on the census questionnaire, it could prevent immigrants from accurately reporting themselves, potentially inflating or underestimating total population statistics. The Trump administration has argued that only an accurate portrait of the U.S. population will ensure the Voting Rights Act is properly enforced.
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The former Obama administration director, John Thompson, admitted in an interview with CityLab on Tuesday that if there is any "inaccuracy in the centennial census, that will be with us for 10 years."
The controversy arose in December when the Justice Department sent the Census Bureau a letter requesting that questions of citizenship be reinstated on the official 2020 census questionnaire. From 1970 to 2000, the census bureau included the question of citizenship on its long-form decennial questionnaire sent to nearly one in six Americans. The data collected was used to ensure that U.S. population estimates were accurate and to adequately protect against "vote-dilution" by state and local government engaged in the congressional redistricting process.
The Justice Department's request to include the citizenship question is legal under the Voting Rights Act, which was originally passed to ensure that American citizens, regardless of race, have the opportunity to take part take part in the democratic process.
"To fully enforce those requirements, the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected," the DOJ letter said.
The arguments Thompson and left-wing organizations like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights offer in opposition to the citizenship question focus on the additional expense of adding the question and on the fact that estimates of the citizen voting-age population have been adequate to define congressional districts in the past.
Despite the fact that Democrats have extolled the virtues of immigration and the plight of illegal immigrants as a prime political concern in recent years, the activists argue it immigrants should not be asked to declare whether they have legal status. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights argued immigrants will be particularly fearful to provide information in 2020 given the "heightened climate of fear" driven by " anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies."
"Mixed-status and immigrant households will be especially fearful of providing information to the federal government in 2020, given the heightened climate of fear that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have created," the organization said in a statement.