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The Citizenship Question

Questions about whether those without citizenship in the United States deserve the same treatment from government officials - whether they be legal residents, green card holders, or undocumented people - have become flashpoints in ideas about economic policymaking and public jurisdiction. There has been intense back and forth over the inclusion of the “citizenship question” on the 2020 census. The question would simply entail the following: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” While President Trump has backed away from his efforts to institute a citizenship question on the Census, the debate on whether the question should be placed on the Census has continued to ignite impassioned responses across the political spectrum. Most of the opposition to the inclusion of the question has been due to the fact that Thomas B. Hoefeller, Republican political strategist, recommended that Trump utilize the citizenship question for the purpose of increasing the degree to which gerrymandered districts would benefit the GOP. Considering the numerous political and economic effects adding the citizenship question to the Census could have, it is necessary to examine the origin and history of the Census and the arguments for and against such a measure.

History of the Citizenship Question

The constitution mandates the counting of the entire population of the United States in Article 1, Section 2. Specifically, it states:

[An] Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

This enumeration includes all people living in the United States and does not mention any specific provisions of people to be counted - other than that which was eliminated after the passage of the fourteenth amendment in regards to the naturalization of African- Americans- and the citizenship of Indigenous People - similarly eliminated after a 1940 Supreme Court Case. Since the Constitution mandates the counting of the entire American population, it follows that the goal of any Census should be to count every person residing in the United States.

After the abolition of slavery, there was a citizenship question that was to be voluntarily filled out by those who were born outside of the United States until 1950. Additionally, some longer forms of the Census in circulation since 1950 included the question but did not require the participant to answer the question.

Arguments for the Citizenship Question

With the goal of the Census in mind and understanding the rarity of the usage of the Citizenship Question itself, it is important to examine the goals of those who support its institution. One argument for the provision of the Citizenship Question is the fact that the HHS (Health and Human Services Department) already asks this question to residents of each state that wish to apply for food stamps to streamline the process and make the distribution of benefits faster. While non-citizens cannot receive benefits, the children of non-citizens can receive them, which leads many to believe that there is no reason for people to be ‘scared’ of such a question. Another justification for the question is that vote shares would be skewed in favor of states with more noncitizens - Democratic states. Specifically, if one follows the principle of “one person, one vote”, each vote cast should have an equal vote in national decision-making. However, in states with higher noncitizen populations, an individual voter would have more power due to the fact that House seats are apportioned in accordance with states’ total populations. Thus many argue that the inequity between states, especially those with higher undocumented populations, justifies the inclusion of the question on the Census.

Ramifications - Discrimination and Material Undoing

While those are all valid reasons to include the citizenship question, the official justification of the White House, however, has since been found to have been falsified for political purposes, forcing President Trump to step back from supporting it. Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce who also oversees the Census, cited enforcing the Voting Rights Act as the reason for the question, as the act requires finding minority-majority districts whenever possible. People began to doubt this reasoning, and soon after it was found that the real reason for the institution of the question was to further discrimination against communities of color, as was found in the ruling by the Supreme Court.

This in and of itself is one of the many arguments against the citizenship question. Specifically, the citizenship question would likely result in an undercounting of minority communities and prevent resources from going where they are needed the most. This is because the inclusion of the citizenship question would lead to a “chilling effect” - leading to citizens being scared that the census would lead to their private information being open to public scrutiny, as was explained by former Census Supervisors during the Supreme Court proceedings. Unlike the Democrats who would benefit from reapportionment (a process that happens to reallocate resources where they are needed the most), Republicans would benefit from redistricting - especially if minority and immigrant communities are undercounted - and if they manage to start districting states based on the number of voting citizens. Even so, apportionment, in reality, does not help Democrats, since minorities are routinely undercounted in Censuses on a regular basis.

What this means for the AANHPI Community

For Asian Americans specifically, the scare surrounding the possibility of a citizenship question itself could be enough to depress Census participation and could prevent the fulfillment of the Constitutional mandate that the United States Federal Government must abide by. Asian-Americans are already a ‘hard to count’ population, due to the number of languages that many of us speak, and the variety of communities that the term encompasses. For those Asian-Americans who cannot speak English and who may be living in poverty, access to the Census is already very limited. Misinformation about the purpose and the independence of the Census from immigration authorities like ICE, anti-immigration sentiments, and the threat of a loss of benefits that they already receive, along with a variety of changes in the way the Census is conducted (more technology than paper-based) could all reduce the counting of low income minorities in the Census. However, in terms of accounting for the entirety of the Asian American community - given that a majority of Asian Americans immigrate to the United States legally, it is likely that the effect on the Asian American community will be much less that that on other communities of color.

What we should do

Given that the Census is so essential to making resources available to our communities, it is clear that Americans and the U.S. Government should pick the choice that best fulfills the duty of serving the American people. It’s important to consider the ramifications that this could have on communities of color - who already scared of the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of the White House. We cannot continue to scare off these communities, both legal and “illegal” - especially when it comes at the cost of their conditional well-being. The resources provided through the Census, for tax paying residents, should go to all living and contributing to the United States. Fulfilling our constitutional responsibility, and the most humane response would be to continue what we have done for ages, and simply ask households the necessary questions to provide them with what they need.


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