Posted by Guest on June 13, 2018 in Blog

By Blaise Malley

Last Friday, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing regarding the hotly contested addition of a citizenship category to the 2020 Census.

For a question that was put forth by the current administration as being about accumulating the most accurate and precise data possible, the debate at the hearing made clear the political agenda behind the citizenship question. Led by the subcommittee chairman Rep. Steve King (R-NY), Republican members of the committee argued that counting non-citizens who cannot vote distorts the allocation of both congressional seats and Electoral College votes. Democrats countered that this decision represented a continuation of President Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric and would in fact be damaging to data integrity by dissuading large chunks of the population from participating in the census. The inclusion of a citizenship question would predominately affect metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Houston, therefore diluting the vote of the large immigrant populations that reside there.

The witness list itself betrayed the thinking behind the question’s addition. One witness who spoke in support of the addition was Steven Camarota, the Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-immigrant hate group. Another witness, J. Christian Adams of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, has been known to make false allegations of voter fraud and previously served on Trump’s disbanded election integrity commission. Both of these men’s policy track record suggest that an anti-immigrant agenda—and not a more accurate census—is what drove their testimony.  

The only witness to not argue his position politically was Dr. Steve Murdock, Director of the U.S. Census Bureau during the Bush Administration. Dr. Murdock expressed concern with the process that had led to the inclusion of a citizenship question on the decennial census. He explained that the process to amending the decennial questionnaire is a long one, based in years of research to ensure that the change will yield the desired outcome. Although Dr. Murdoch was not a part of the decision making process for this latest change, he conveyed doubts that, given the quick timeline of the announcement, an appropriate amount of research has taken place.

Indeed, it should be noted that while the administration has pushed to add this untested question, several changes that have undergone thorough testing and were shown to elicit higher quality data were rejected: first, a combined the race and ethnicity portion of the questionnaire; and second, a “Middle Eastern or North African” (MENA) reporting category.

In recent years both external and internal (from both the 2010 Alternative Questionnaire Experiment and the 2015 National Content Test) research has shown that both changes would accomplish the goals of reaching a more complete count and doing so more accurately than the current census does. Despite these findings and the significant progress made, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget reversed course, keeping the same categories that were in place in 2010, and adding the last-minute citizenship question.

It is difficult to determine the impact of the untested question, mostly due to the lack of data on the subject. However, the combination of the quick nature of the decision and the Trump Administration’s history of anti-immigrant stances demonstrate that this decision was not made in good faith and will be employed to target and intimidate immigrants, both documented and undocumented. The Trump administration has once again demonstrated that it is not interested in research, facts, or data. Instead, it is an administration fully motivated by putting down and dehumanizing those who are considered to be “others” and by scoring points for political gains. The choice to add a citizenship question while ignoring more important adjustments to the census is not done with the ultimate goal of including the questionnaire, but rather to continue to advance the President’s xenophobic agenda.  

The hearing could have given Congress a chance to sort through these problems and ensure that changes to the census were being made with the right intentions in mind. It is Congress’ responsibility to place this check on the President. However, in this case, this subcommittee elected to go along with the Administration, putting together a hearing containing witnesses who have a clear and well-documented history of anti-immigrant beliefs and who are looking to use the supposedly objective census as a tool to push their political agenda forward. If left unchecked, the resulting undercount will have harmful consequences on communities across the country for years to come.


Blaise Malley is a 2018 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.