Census citizenship question raises concerns among immigrant population at University

The United States Commerce Department

announced on March 26 the 2020 census will include a question asking respondents whether they are U.S. citizens. Made during a heated national debate on immigration policy, the decision has raised significant questions about potential effects of the change at the University of Michigan.

According to a statement released by the department, the decision will help gain more accurate information about eligible voter demographics and will assist the Department of Justice and the judiciary with enforcing Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority rights.

However, opponents of the decision argue the question will disincentivize undocumented immigrants from filing census data. According to the Pew Research Center, there were 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2015, making up 3.4 percent of the total population. If a significant portion of these people choose not to respond to the census, the survey would deliver an inaccurate population count and distort the demographic makeup of the U.S.

Numerous government agencies and outside groups rely on the information gathered in the census, which is carried out every 10 years, for accurate population data. Changes that could impact its accuracy are subject to scrutiny. In this case, immigration advocacy groups are concerned the addition of the question will lead to inadequate attention to ethnic minorities and immigrants in government work.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, one of President Donald Trump’s most active opponents among state attorneys general, plans to file a multi-state lawsuit challenging the decision. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a separate lawsuit on March 26.

William Lopez, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Social Work working with immigration research, said he believes the question will have a significant impact on the results of the census and the nature of government immigration policy could contribute to this effect.

“Having a citizenship question on the census is going to disincentivize anyone from taking the census who is not a citizen,” Lopez said. “The reason for this largely is we take the census — we are counted by our government — in order to receive the resources which should be equitably directed to us. The issue for undocumented folks is that they are well aware of the government resources that are directed to them. And that is Immigration and Customs Enforcement, border patrol and targeting their removal. So there’s no incentive to categorize yourself in a group the government is currently pursuing.”

The question does not inquire about the legality of a respondent’s residence, and many legal residents are not U.S. citizens. However, Lopez claims the presence of the question would likely impact responses. Lopez also said Trump’s generalized immigration rhetoric could discourage even legal residents from responding, including immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants legal status to minors brought into the country illegally.

“On a larger political scale, Trump is not differentiating people who are undocumented versus DACA versus permanent resident versus in the process of getting documented,” Lopez said. “He’s just throwing all immigrants in the same category, legally or otherwise … If you’re not identifying yourself as a citizen, you’re identifying yourself as someone that our president in power has targeted for, at the very least, anti-immigrant rhetoric but also for deportation and removal.”

Student advocacy groups have responded negatively to the decision. Engineering senior Javier Contreras has been involved in immigration advocacy for five years at three different schools. He began his work in a mentorship program in his senior year of high school, helping students find colleges with resources for undocumented students. Contreras is a DACA recipient and has focused his recent advocacy on protecting undocumented University students.

“Generally, we’re not going to have a proper portrayal of our presence,” Contreras said. “The numbers would lie and be skewed to say that we have a smaller presence (than we do).”

Contreras noted DACA applicants are required to provide a large amount of personal information, including past addresses and fingerprints, but usually find the benefits outweigh concerns about the use of that information. He claims the same would not be true for the census. Contreras also said information and language barriers could stoke more fear and lead to an even lower amount of responses from immigrants.

LSA senior Alejandro Navarrete works at the Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, which supports and serves undocumented students. Like Contreras, he has been working in immigration advocacy for his entire undergraduate career.

“The usability of the census for any type of empirical research would also be impacted, which would pretty much make the census useless, especially given the high proportion of undocumented immigrants that live in the country,” Navarrete said.

Navarrete said undocumented University students will not be in immediate trouble, and other issues are far more pressing for undocumented immigrants. However, he expressed concerns about the long-term effects of an inaccurate population count, which could potentially hurt the immigrant population as a whole.

“When drafting policy — thinking about who constituents are — representatives will underestimate the number of immigrants and also underestimate the effect of immigrants,” Navarrete said. “In the long term, it will just be a negative for any progress related to the estimate of immigration’s impact on the country.”


This article, by Riely Langefeld orignially appeared in the Michigan Daily on April 2, 2018.

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