The Sordid Math of Racism and Political Violence — Part I


Guy Johnson | Sr. Program Director, Federal and National Networks, Partners for Each and Every Child


This week, the Opportunity Institute joined more than 250,000 other people and organizations in urging the Commerce Department to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 Census.

The purpose of the census is to establish an authoritative count of all the persons in each state so that seats in the U.S. House of Representatives may be apportioned among the 50 states according to the population of each of those states. So, it is important to note that this is a count of persons — and not of citizens — and that seats in the House are to be apportioned based on total human population, not number of citizens in the population.

In the comment we submitted to the Federal Register, we echoed concerns raised by the civil rights community that the inclusion of a citizenship question is likely to impede the accurate counting of immigrant individuals and their families. We agreed with the service providers and advocates who work closely with immigrant populations and have said that the inclusion of a citizenship question will act as a strong disincentive for the participation of these families.

The undercounting of immigrant children and their families stands to have significant and detrimental impacts for their political representation, and for the protection and advancement of their interests in the governmental decisions that will impact their schools, the allocation and disbursement of federal funds to support their education, and a host of related issues.

We also noted that many staff within the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau — researchers, experts, and leaders — have previously raised similar concerns about the negative impacts of the proposed citizenship question on achieving an accurate count. The feedback provided on multiple occasions by various Commerce Department staff on these issues is particularly striking:

  • Adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census will have an “adverse impact on self-response and, as a result, on the accuracy and quality of the 2020 Census.” (John Abowd, Associate Director for Research and Methodology, in a January 19, 2018 memorandum to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross);

  • There has already been an “unprecedented” level of “deliberate falsification of the household roster and spontaneous mention of concerns regarding negative attitudes toward immigrants.” (2020 Census pretesting, the Census Bureau’s Center for Survey Measurement);

  • Confidentiality concerns “may have a disproportionate impact on an already ‘hard to count’ population: immigrants.” (Census Bureau research staff, qualitative evaluations of the 2017 multilingual pretesting studies, and in additional studies done in 2018);

  • Regarding the inclusion of the question, there are significant concerns about “implications for attitudes about the Census Bureau and concerns about confidentiality.” (The Census Bureau’s Census Scientific Advisory Committee, recommendations to Acting Census Director Ron Jarmin following the committee’s 2018 Spring meeting).

What this means is that the U.S. Commerce Department — long on notice that the addition of a citizenship question to the census would stoke fears of recrimination and deportation among immigrants in this country and undermine their willingness to participate at all in the census or to participate honestly — decided to go ahead anyway and attempt to add that question. Even with the foreknowledge that this would result in a significant undercount of these individuals in the census and in the apportionment of fair political representation in this country, the federal government persisted.

And the scope of that callousness is significant.

The U.S. Commerce Department and Census Bureau are both aware of the large number of ”mixed households” in our country, where some are citizens, some have legal status, and some do not. The complexity of “legal immigration status” within many families and modern American households, combined with general popular awareness of the presidential administration’s draconian stance on immigration, means that — lest we think of this impact solely in terms of households where all of the residents either do or do not have legal citizenship status — a large number of U.S. citizen households will have a reason to either not answer the census questions at all or not answer them honestly because they want to protect an undocumented roommate, family member, or friend. This will mean an inaccurate citizen count on top of an inaccurate counting of people.

So, if the question is unlikely to result in an accurate count of what it’s explicitly supposed to measure, then what precisely is the point of this enterprise?

The human rights of immigrants in this country are as valid and important as those of any other group within our borders. That their interests are deserving of representation in our government is precisely why the census is a count of people and not of citizens.

Regardless of documented, undocumented, or “mixed” citizenship status, these households, these families, these children deserve a high-quality public education as much as any group of students in our system. To knowingly compromise the full representation of the interests of these individuals in our representative democracy, to willingly abrogate the participation of these students and their families in our civic systems, including in our schools, is a disservice to our educational system. It is a rejection of our fundamental moral and civic commitments as Americans.