Skip Navigation

Trump Administration Abandons Citizenship Question

A citizenship question will not appear on the 2020 census, but threats to the count remain.

July 12, 2019

Yester­day, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion offi­cially gave up its fight to add an unpre­ced­en­ted and untested citizen­ship ques­tion to the 2020 census. The admin­is­tra­tion’s conces­sion — announced in a White House press confer­ence and accom­pa­ny­ing exec­ut­ive order — is a major break­through in the fight for a fair and accur­ate count, remov­ing one of the lead­ing threats to the integ­rity of the census. But the 2020 census still faces chal­lenges that require urgent and care­ful atten­tion.

The admin­is­tra­tion’s aban­don­ment of the citizen­ship ques­tion closed out two weeks of frenzy that cast consid­er­able confu­sion on the status of the census. At the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision strik­ing down the ques­tion, affirm­ing rulings by three federal courts that the admin­is­tra­tion’s proposal was illegal. In the wake of the Court’s ruling, Commerce Secret­ary Wilbur Ross announced that the printer had begun print­ing the census ques­tion­naire without the ques­tion. Mean­while, attor­neys from the Justice Depart­ment informed a federal judge that the admin­is­tra­tion did not plan to pursue the ques­tion, only to reverse course when Pres­id­ent Trump announced the oppos­ite. The flip-flop­ping was not only confus­ing, it also obscured the primary issue facing the admin­is­tra­tion: any attempt to get the ques­tion on the upcom­ing census would have been legally futile.

With the ques­tion at a legal dead-end, Trump ulti­mately conceded to real­ity and issued an exec­ut­ive order call­ing the Census Bureau to collect pre-exist­ing admin­is­trat­ive records on citizen­ship from other federal agen­cies. The order effect­ively rein­forces data-gath­er­ing efforts that the Bureau was already under­tak­ing. The Bureau will use the records it receives to supple­ment the data it already collects from the Amer­ican Community Survey, an annual survey sent to 2.5 percent of Amer­ican house­holds that has provided the federal govern­ment with accur­ate citizen­ship data for years.

While the courts ulti­mately blocked the citizen­ship ques­tion, the admin­is­tra­tion’s efforts pursu­ing it have caused long-term damage to public trust in the Census Bureau and exacer­bated fears among immig­rants and communit­ies of color about respond­ing to the 2020 census. That damage will take a lot to undo.

The admin­is­tra­tion should begin by broad­cast­ing its commit­ment to follow­ing the laws that strictly protect the confid­en­ti­al­ity of census data. In yester­day’s order, Trump stated, “[u]nder my Admin­is­tra­tion, the data confid­en­ti­al­ity protec­tions in Title 13 shall be fully respec­ted.” He firmly acknow­ledged that census data “may not, and shall not, be used to bring immig­ra­tion enforce­ment actions against partic­u­lar indi­vidu­als.” And he commit­ted to ensur­ing that the Census Bureau will use the citizen­ship data it collects “solely to produce stat­ist­ics.” Now that the pres­id­ent has commit­ted his admin­is­tra­tion to not using census data to harm anyone who responds to the census (which is what the law requires), the admin­is­tra­tion should amplify that commit­ment across the coun­try.

Advoc­ates need to continue pres­sur­ing the admin­is­tra­tion to combat things like the digital divide, cyber­se­cur­ity issues confront­ing the new, inter­net-based census approach, and the poten­tial for a differ­en­tial under­count. Congress will need to engage in heavy over­sight of the Census Bureau. And states and local govern­ments must step up efforts to ensure their resid­ents get coun­ted, includ­ing through aggress­ive advert­ising campaigns letting every­one know that the 2020 census will not include a citizen­ship ques­tion. Every­one can do their part to ensure a fair and accur­ate 2020 census.

(Image: Getty/Win McNamee)