Posted by Suher Adi on July 26, 2018 in Blog

The 2020 Census is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. The data collected serves many purposes, for all those residing in the United States. From redistricting and helping Congress appropriate the right amount of funds for various services to helping determine where schools and hospitals should be built, the Census is an avenue for the federal government to support the people as intended.

For years communities have been asking the Bureau to change the race and ethnicity categories used due to the need of providing more categories for a more accurate count of underrepresented communities. This disaggregation of data has been a bipartisan issue, and the Census Bureau has done the research to support the need for categories such as the Middle Eastern North African (MENA) category, stating that it would provide a more accurate population count.

The Census Bureau must ensure an accurate count which is why we have advocated for adding a MENA ethnic category to the questionnaire for over three years. However, a few months ago, the Bureau came under fire for several issues that can negatively impact an accurate count on the upcoming 2020 census. Decades of research done by the Bureau itself has showed that adding a MENA category by way of a new combined question format would be beneficial in providing a more accurate population count.

Commerce Secretary Ross decided to disregard all the data and research done to make changes in order to improve the count under the context that the Bureau did not want to make any changes but they now want to include a citizenship question. Due to the current administrations hardline stance on immigration, this addition caused many concerns on what the use of the citizenship question data will yield. Two responses were given by Ross and the Department of Justice (DOJ)—Ross said there was a need for accurate citizenship data and the DOJ stated that they needed data to ensure voter suppression was not taking place. These answers were not sufficient to reduce concern.

What increased concern, however, was the knowledge that little to no research was done on the addition of the citizenship question. Career staff like the Bureau’s Chief Scientist have even warned that this question "is very costly, harms the quality of the census count, and would use substantially less accurate citizenship status data than are available" with the current data available to government agencies. What is even more concerning is the inception of this question.

Though Secretary Ross testified at the House Ways and Means Committee going on record saying that the DOJ initiated the request for the citizenship question, he left out an important fact: he had asked the DOJ to initiate said request and went so far to say that he is “mystified” that his request to add the question was taking so long. Memos between Secretary Ross, the DOJ and other actors affiliated with the administration were released due to lawsuits by 17 states and cities wanting the removal of the citizenship question.

The census is constitutionally required to count all people, regardless of citizenship status, in order to appropriate funding and congressional seats for all those that reside here. The current six lawsuits are looking to see if the addition of the citizenship question was indeed politically motivated, intended to attack minority communities count on the Census. An email chain which surfaced through litigation shows Kris Kobach, friend of Steve Bannon, stating the need for the citizenship question due to issues like “aliens who do not actually reside in the United States are still counted for congressional appointment purposes.” Kobach’s assumption is that states, where a substantial amount of undocumented residents live, have used the census to unjustly get more congressional seats in the house—this assumption comes with the intention to encourage an undercount of all minorities regardless of citizenship status.


What’s at Stake

The addition of the citizenship question is concerning because of the likelihood of increasing the undercounting of communities like ours. No research was done before deciding to add the question and many staff working in the Census Bureau have stated that it is going to be very costly and will likely lead to an undercount of immigrant communities. Much like other ethnic minorities in the United States, there is concern among Arab Americans with trust of the federal government. Focus groups have shown that the citizenship question led to fewer members of the Hispanic community filling out the census. Not filling out the census results in undercounting of members of the ethnic community. This undercounting comes at the expense of our community members, those who need various social services and those who need investment in their schools. Our much-needed political representation is stripped away from us.

Arab Americans have a history of being undercounted on the Census already—currently the only way that we show up on the Census is through data gathered about ancestry. The ancestry data shows those who come from Arab countries and give us a gross underrepresentation of how many of us reside in the United States. The federal statistics derived from the Census Bureau estimates that 1,969,901 Arab Americans live in the United States. Research done by AAIF and Zogby International suggests that the federal governments statistic is significantly lower than the actual numbers, which they estimate to be around 3,665,789. Undercounting is what has lead to the inaccurate data on the numbers of Arab Americans living in America today.

Immigration of Arab Americans has gradually increased yearly from 2001 to 2016; from 38,890 to 80,873 people in those years respectively. Over the 15 years of data reported a total of 747,103 Arabs immigrated to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of members of our community could very easily fall victim to the politicized census and are among those that this citizenship question target. As we patiently await the court decisions to see if the citizenship question will make it on to the 2020 Census, we must continue to show the very real consequences of this politicization. The Census is on the verge of becoming an avenue to diminish services and resources for Arab Americans and other minority groups across the country.

The Bureau’s actions on the MENA category, combined question format and the citizenship question results in politicization of the 2020 Census. We cannot allow the Census Bureau to disregard members of immigrant communities and must demand them to make changes that lead to a more accurate count.