Should the Census be Allowed to Ask About Citizenship?

Should the Census ask about citizenship status? A dispute has arisen between one lawmaker and the Justice Department over the issue.

A debate has arisen over whether or not the 2020 Census form should reinstate a question regarding citizenship.

In a letter to Dr. Ron Jarmin, who is performing the non-exclusive functions and duties of the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, the Justice Department formally requested that the agency reinstate a question about citizenship.

“This data is critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting. To fully enforce those requirements, the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected,” wrote Arthur E. Gary, General Counsel at the Justice Department.

He went on in the letter to outline the numerous reasons as to why the Justice Department feels the question is needed to protect Americans’ voting rights.

This letter got the attention of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), who obviously thinks asking about one’s citizenship status is a terrible idea. She introduced legislation not long after the letter was sent to “prohibit the use of questions on citizenship, nationality, or immigration status in any decennial census.”

The Ensuring Full Participation in the Census Act of 2018 (H.R. 4906) was introduced on January 30.

Norton said in a press release about the bill that asking the citizenship question would adversely impact minorities and therefore it should be left off of the Census. She also said in the press release that the American Community Survey already asks respondents for their citizenship status and asking the question would reduce response rates to the Census.

“If the point of the census is to get an accurate count, the least effective way to do it in the anti-immigrant atmosphere engineered by the President is to tuck it into the census questionnaire,” Norton said. “Professionals at the Census Bureau know how to get an answer to this legitimate inquiry and we should follow them, not step on their professional efforts. My bill seeks to ensure that no respondent to the all-important census feels intimidated.”

The Census has become a politically charged event with various parties weighing in on what questions they think should be asked for their own reasons.

A debate over sexual orientation questions arose last year after draft questions released did not include sexual orientation questions. However, after an uproar from gay rights groups, the Census Bureau announced it would include a question about sexual orientation on at least one of its surveys. See Census Bureau Releases List of Subjects for 2020 Census

Dec 2017 DOJ Letter to Census

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.