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Guest Commentary: Nothing to Fear From Citizenship Question on Census

Censuses are as old as civilization. One of the more notable ones took place when the Romans took over Judea and organized a census for taxation. According to the Gospel of Luke, when Mary and Joseph went to be counted, their son, Jesus, was born.


Here in the United States the census, mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, has been going on every 10 years for more than 225 years.


The data gathered by the census does much more than satisfy curiosity about how many people are currently living here. Census data controls both the distribution of billions of dollars and the allocation of political power. It’s used for allocating billions of dollars in federal funding, to determine the number of representatives from each state and the number of each state’s electors in the Electoral College.


Last week, the Department of Commerce, which runs the Census Bureau, announced that it was adding a simple question to the decennial census to be held in 2020. The census will ask whether or not respondents are American citizens.


If you thought that question was already being asked, you can certainly be excused for your error. After all, it seems like a pretty common sense and straightforward question, especially given the long list of personal questions the census routinely asks.


In fact, the question of citizenship was part of the census from the earliest days of the Republic until 1960.


 Charlie Gerow


It was then added to the “long form” questionnaire but dropped from the shorter form used for most people. The two-questionnaire system was employed until the 2010 census when the citizenship question was dropped altogether. However, the Census Bureau continued to ask the question in its annual American Community Survey, not part of the official census but nevertheless required by law to be answered.


The reaction to the announcement of the reinstatement of the citizenship question was swift and just a little over the top.


California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra took less than 24 hours to let the world know that he was filing a lawsuit to block the question from, once again, being asked. By week’s end he’d talked attorneys general from mostly larger and very blue states into joining him.


California, which boasts “sanctuary state” status and more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, believes it has political interests to protect. Considering that more than a dozen states don’t have a total population of 2.5 million, it’s easy to see why.


The theory advanced by those opposed to asking the citizenship question is that it will somehow suppress the count because people will be afraid to answer and will drop out of the census.


That’s a theory, though, not a fact. As Secretary Wilbur Ross clearly pointed out, there’s no empirical data whatsoever to support their theory.


On the contrary, there’s a lot of evidence that the theory doesn’t hold water. Many nations, from Australia to Canada, routinely ask about citizenship without much difficulty. Furthermore, participation in the census isn’t voluntary, it’s mandatory. If someone chooses not to respond to the questionnaire, the Census Bureau employs a variety of methods to get the data. Folks who refuse to participate are even subject to prosecution and fines, although that rarely happens.


There’s also the fact that responses to the census are highly confidential. A “72-year rule” prevents the disclosure or distribution of personal data for 72 years. Maybe that’s why there’s been relatively little squawk about much more intrusive questions asked by the census takers.


The question being asked is about citizenship not legal status. But the issue of counting illegal immigrants in the census is really at the heart of the controversy, although the Democratic attorneys general aren’t likely to admit it.


The controversy over counting illegal immigrants for the purpose of determining congressional representation isn’t new. More than a generation ago, a relatively obscure young congressman tried to stop it. Unfortunately, a federal court found he didn’t have “standing” to bring his lawsuit and kicked the legal issue down the proverbial lane.


That congressman was Tom Ridge, who went on to be governor of Pennsylvania and the nation’s first secretary of homeland security. Had Gov. Ridge prevailed, we wouldn’t have the current controversy.

There’s nothing wrong, either legally or practically, with the census asking about citizenship. It’s been asked throughout virtually all of our history, it is still asked by many of our allies and it makes common sense to be asked again in 2020.


Charlie Gerow

The writer is the CEO of Quantum Communications which has a Maryland office in Annapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].



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Guest Commentary: Nothing to Fear From Citizenship Question on Census