The Citizenship Question & the 2020 Census

Government Information, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Political Viewpoint

By: Kelly Bilz

Earlier this year, amidst the government shutdown and the border wall, another issue captured national attention: the addition of a new question to the 2020 census, the “citizenship question.”

In actuality, this question–whether the individual is a citizen of the United States–is not new. In January, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman did not even declare the question unconstitutional in his decision. On page 11, he describes the addition as “not inconsistent with the Constitution,” although it does flout other legislation about procedures to determine citizenship status. The census is not intended to be a politically charged document, nor is it a tool for furthering an administration’s agenda. (At the same time, let’s not forget the censuses once differentiated between free and enslaved persons–it is not a document without a complicated, problematic past, either.)

The citizenship question itself has a precedent. Its last appearance on the census was in 1950 (see pages 5 and 21 of the decision), nearly seventy years ago, in a decade not known for its inclusivity. By the way, due to privacy laws, the public only has access to censuses up to 1940–for more on that, see my previous post. If you do genealogy, like me, you’ve seen the question before.

You can see the citizenship question on the 1940 census template form. According to the National Archives’ list of questions for the 1940 census, the answer to the citizenship question fell into four categories: naturalized, having first papers, alien, and American citizen born abroad. (With a historic precedent this extensive, it would be difficult to make a case that the citizenship question violates principles of privacy.)

As someone who works in a genealogy department, I’ve run across quite a few census records just in my average workday. They are essential documents, for genealogy and other pursuits, and often, if not always, they are the starting point for family research. However, censuses are by no means perfect documents. People lie or make mistakes (especially about their ages–you wouldn’t believe). There are misunderstandings, cross-cultural differences, various levels of literacy or English comprehension, and census takers work with what they hear. For instance, my last name, Bilz, has appeared in censuses as Bils, Biltz, and Beltze (you can see it become more German moving back through time). It’s endearing or infuriating, depending on how much it convolutes your research.

Using census data, I have been able to find out, roughly, when my ancestors immigrated to the United States and where they came from. Was it because of the citizenship question? Not at all, or at least, not as directly as the proposed 2020 census version.

The census questions I learn the most from are about birthplace and language. The census asks the respondent’s birthplace, as well as their parents’. International answers vary in specificity: they may give the name of a city (e.g. Hanover) or just the country (e.g. Ireland). The next question type, language, asks about the person’s ability to speak English, followed by their ability to write.

Both questions are politically charged today, as they almost certainly were at the time. They evoke the attitudes of viral videos like this one where people yell hateful things like “Speak English!” or “Go back to where you came from!” Immigration has never been easy–the 1940 census was one year after the ship St. Louis, carrying Jewish passengers fleeing the Shoah, was sent away–but it was a vastly different atmosphere than the one today.

The problem today isn’t the question. It was never about the question. It was about what the government will do with the answer. Judge Furman’s opinion calls the motives behind the citizenship question “pretextual” and vaguely refers to “the true nature of Secretary Ross’s intent” as given by the defense (page 9). And who knows how this administration, with its demonstrated hostility to immigrants and its unmasked indifference to their suffering, will use this information? More deportations, more camps? More children inexplicably lost?  

Ragged and slightly torn American flag hangs from a chain-link fence.
Copyright Wayne S. Grazio

Unsurprisingly, one of the arguments against the question was that it would discourage responses. Solely on a pragmatic level, even the Census Bureau believes such a question would be inadvisable, both for quality reasons (skewing the data) as well as economic reasons (increasing follow-up costs for non-responders). Currently, the Census Bureau estimates that 630,000 people will not respond, which has many concerned about how that would affect the distribution of government resources. Many fear that it will affect government assistance programs, because decisions would be based on unreliable data.

The Census Bureau will be doing research this summer to see what impact the citizenship question would have. (Related, the Bureau is currently hiring.)

This all begs the question: what benefit could there possibly be from adding this question?   

A lack of responses not only affects our present and our future–how many representatives we have in Congress or who gets funding–but it will leave a gap in our cultural record. Our heritage and family history plays a large role in creating our identity. This is why shows like Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are enjoy the popularity they do. In many cases, genealogy is about reclaiming a history that was originally denied. Adoptees use DNA to find their birth family, and Alex Haley wrote a novel based on his family history, which later became Roots.

The citizenship question is an intellectual freedom issue for two reasons. First, the question will affect the historic record by discrediting the census. People have a right to study the past, particularly their own past. Censuses are one of the important research tools for genealogical and historical research. Second, the question has not even been tested yet, but it has already had an impact. 630,000 is a big number, and it will leave a noticeable gap. The citizenship question threatens to compromise the quality of data, data of national importance at that.

Meanwhile, we will wait and see what the Supreme Court says.

Kelly BilzKelly Bilz is a graduate student from Kentucky pursuing her MLIS with a specialization in academic libraries. She works in her university’s Special Collections as well as the local history department of a public library. Kelly first heard about intellectual freedom in her Information in Society course and has spent the time since arguing with her friends about intellectual freedom in algorithms, ethics, and institutional integrity. Because she is passionate about history and the cultural record, Kelly is interested in how intellectual freedom affects access to genealogical records and ethical collecting practices in archives. In her free time, Kelly enjoys listening to podcasts (especially Ear Hustle) and watching old movies (like Lady from Shanghai). Find her on LinkedIn.

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  • Don’t forget you need to give credit to the photographer when you use their imagery even under Creative Commons Rules on Flickr. Glad you could use my image. A link to my page is all I as any user of my imagery. Thank you. Wayne.

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