Will a New Question Scare Illegal Immigrants Away from the Census?


When the idea of measuring the United States' population every 10 years was first codified, the mission was pretty straightforward: Tally up the "Number of free Persons" living in each state so that seats in the U.S. House of Representatives can be apportioned accordingly.

Many things have changed since then, not least the definition of "free persons." But the primary directive of what has come to be known as the Census has remained the same. Until now.

On March 26, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the decennial survey in 2020 will for the first time in 70 years ask all respondents about their citizenship status. Ross made that call despite warnings from six previous directors of the Census Bureau that doing so would place the "accuracy" of the study at "grave risk," due to the likely increase in nonresponses among households and communities with heavy concentrations of illegal immigrants.

"It is simply inconceivable to me there would not be a very high level of anxiety around that question," former director Vincent Barabba (1973–76) told Mother Jones. It's "beyond comprehension at this point. It would be really bad."

Confronted with such concerns, Ross made a remarkable admission: The risk of increased headcount inaccuracy is worth it. "Even if there is some impact on responses…the citizenship data provided to [the Department of Justice] will be more accurate with the question than without it," he wrote in an explanatory memo, "which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond."

In other words, a secondary or even tertiary purpose of the Census is now more important than its original constitutional mission.

What does the Justice Department have to do with survey questionnaires, anyway? The official story is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions et al. are eager to collect more comprehensive data so that they can better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to prevent states and localities from interfering with African Americans' suffrage. Yet Sessions repeatedly characterized that law as "intrusive" during his confirmation hearings, and since then federal enforcement actions have ground to a near halt.

In a memo to Ross, the Justice Department correctly pointed out that information gleaned from the Census—which measures every household—is far more robust than the bureau's monthly American Community Survey (ACS), which instead samples about 2.6 percent of the population each year. Since the ACS has been inquiring about citizenship since its inception in 2005, supporters of the 2020 change want to know: What's the big deal about asking a question that's already being asked?

One answer is that each additional question, regardless of content, increases the nonresponse rate. The ACS, which includes more than 50 questions, came into being as a replacement for the "long-form" Census, which until 2000 was sent to about one-sixth of households. Why was it killed? Because people's tendency to ignore it skewed overall results, thereby degrading the Census' original purpose.

The other obvious answer is that illegal immigrants have good cause to fear the consequences of being honest about their status, particularly under a Trump administration that has been sending immigration enforcement agents to places such as courthouses. Census field researchers have cited "unprecedented" fear this time around that the information may be used for deportation. Given the bureau's tawdry past—it helped identify Japanese Americans for internment during World War II and draft dodgers for prosecution during World War I—such fears are hardly far-fetched.

Mission accomplished, counter supporters. Sen. David Vitter (R–La.), when introducing a bill to mandate that the Census ask a citizenship question in 2009, argued that "states that have large populations of illegals" are being "rewarded" through Census-derived reapportionment. Here we have arrived at a motivation more plausible than a late-breaking concern for the Voting Rights Act.

Giving California more representation in the U.S. House of Representatives by counting its population of illegal immigrants can certainly feel wrong. But feelings and constitutionality are separate things. As National Review legal analyst Matthew J. Franck noted in 2010, "Voting rights are not and never have been the relevant consideration in counting population for congressional representation."

What do you do when you don't like the results but can't change the formula? Adjust the inputs. It's crude, and doing it in the name of minority voting rights is especially galling, but that's where we are in 2018.