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Why The 2020 Census Citizenship Question Hasn't Gone Away


The courts have recently blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, but a citizenship question still exists on other Census Bureau surveys. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains why.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Since June, the Census Bureau has been testing public reaction to a citizenship question through an experiment that has caused lots of confusion...


JAMIE RASKIN: Good afternoon.

WANG: ...Including among members of Congress like Representative Jamie Raskin.


RASKIN: So there are hundreds of thousands of people who in essence are being told they're legally obligated to answer the citizenship question right now.

WANG: During a recent hearing, the Democrat from Maryland pressed Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham for answers about what the Bureau is calling the 2019 Census Test.


RASKIN: The Bureau pushed a last-minute field test to 480,000 households, half of which got the citizenship question, half of which did not.

WANG: This kind of testing usually takes place years before a national head count starts. Dillingham explained why the Bureau squeezed in this experiment after the Trump administration made a late request for the question.


STEVEN DILLINGHAM: The career staff at the Census Bureau thought it was very important that we would know the operational impact for purposes of resources.

RASKIN: So you never made that judgment.

DILLINGHAM: No, I did not make that decision.

RASKIN: All right.

WANG: The Trump administration has stopped pushing to get the question on the 2020 census. Instead, it's using another way to get a detailed count of U.S. citizens and non-citizens by using the records of federal agencies. Still, the Census Bureau had decided to continue testing the question so it could have research ready on how the question could lower response rates and drive up costs for future head counts.

JOSH CLARK: So I went to the site, which is respond.census.gov...

WANG: Josh Clark's home in Sacramento, Calif., was among the half-million households randomly selected for the test. And he says seeing the question on the form now was a bit of a surprise.

CLARK: OK. Is - and it has my full name - a citizen of the United States?

WANG: Clark is working with an immigrant rights group in Nevada to figure out how to do outreach for the 2020 census. And he says he's worried the test forms could send mixed messages.

CLARK: The waters have been muddied so much already. The trust has been broken potentially whether the citizenship question is on there or not.

ESPERANZA GUEVARA: It takes a conversation for sure, and not only a conversation, but with someone that is trusted.

WANG: Esperanza Guevara of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles says her organization has been trying to clear up confusion from the test.

GUEVARA: A lot of our community members quite honestly have never seen the census form or have never filled it out.

WANG: All the attention of the Trump administration's failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census is also complicating other Census Bureau surveys that collect citizenship information the government has relied on for years - include the current population survey and censuses for the U.S. Virgin Islands and other island territories. Those surveys, unlike the census for the States, are not required by the Constitution to include responses about every person living in the U.S., and their results do not determine how congressional seats and Electoral College votes are divided up.

But Bridget O'Callahan, who lives in Chicagoland, says she was concerned after she helped her mother-in-law recently answer a citizenship question on the American Community Survey.

BRIDGET O'CALLAHAN: I got nervous, yeah, wondering if it was maybe fraud or if it was fake.

WANG: It was, in fact, from the Census Bureau, which has used the American Community Survey since 2005 to collect citizenship information that helps enforce the Voting Rights Act. Federal law prohibits responses to Census Bureau surveys from being used against individuals. Still, O'Callahan says the question made her feel suspicious.

O'CALLAHAN: There's been all this drama about not having that question on. It just felt like they, like, snuck it in.

WANG: The Bureau has not announced any plans to remove the question from the American Community Survey, and it's expected to continue asking about citizenship on test census forms through August 15.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "PHASES") 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.