DOJ wants 2020 census to ask about citizenship status

Advocates say this could keep undocumented Americans from participating.

Students at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota
Students at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota., prepare to hang a banner as others sign a pledge that they will fill out their census forms, CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Mone, Jan. 2010

The Department of Justice is asking for a citizenship question on the 2020 census, a move that could suppress undocumented Americans from participating, impact federal funding allocations, and affect congressional restricting.

The DOJ told the Census Bureau in a December 12 letter it needs better census data on citizenship to protect minority populations from voting discrimination, ProPublica reported Friday. But such a question would discourage undocumented people from participating out of fear that providing such information would be used for negative purposes, Steve Jost, a top bureau official during the last 2010 census, said in the ProPublica piece.

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Since its 1790 origin, the goal of the census has been to count everyone in the country, not just citizens, according to ProPublica. Census population data, which is updated every 10 years, impacts the alignment of congressional districts and where federal dollars are dolled out.

This is not the first time Trump administration officials have allegedly sought to adjust the 2020 census for political purposes.

Earlier this year, the Census Bureau sent a list of proposed 2020 survey subjects to Congress, which included proposed questions about sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the bureau quickly sent out a new list excluding LGBT identity questions — with its director John Thompson claiming the earlier version was a clerical error and such questions were never meant to be included as there was “no federal data need” for such information. But advocates say the omission was evidence of Trump administration bias against LGBTQ populations.

In the past, conservatives have attempted to exclude non-U.S. citizens from being considered during the drawing of legislative districts, in an effort to shift power away from urban areas to more Republican-leaning rural areas. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled election districts could be drawn based on the total population of an area — as they historically have — instead of just the number of people who are eligible to vote. But the justices did not say whether other approaches would be constitutional. This change to the census could potentially make it easier for states to try a citizens-only redistricting approach, since it would provide citizenship data every ten years, which the Supreme Court might require.

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Last month, Politico reported the Trump administration was considering appointing Thomas Brunell, a Republican, Texas-based political science professor who wrote a book called Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America to a top operational post at the Census Bureau.