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Guest Opinion: Census must drop citizenship question

by Sandy Close

Ethnic media organizations are urging people to oppose the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Ethnic media organizations are urging people to oppose the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.  

The U.S. Census Bureau is seeking public comment on its 2020 census plan, which includes a citizenship question on the census form all households must answer. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross directed the bureau to add the untested question in March, after misleading stakeholders and Congress about the Justice Department's need for citizenship data from every person.

In our view as an ethnic media center, collecting citizenship status data from every resident for the first time in 70 years will jeopardize any serious effort to achieve a complete count. We join dozens of ethnic media outlets across the country in demanding that the Department of Commerce withdraw the question. We will also urge people to use the public comments period, which ends August 7, to explain why the decision to add the question is so misguided.

Ethnic news media are acutely aware of the high stakes our audiences have in a successful census. The 2020 census ranks as one of the top civil rights issues of our time, underpinning how federal dollars are allocated to our communities and who represents us at almost every level of government. It tells us who we are and who we are becoming as a society. The 2020 census is the one and only act of civic engagement in which literally every person counts - equally.

But all that hinges on people's willingness to trust the government to rigorously adhere to the strict legal protections for census confidentiality and to ensure an equitable distribution of benefits to historically underserved communities of color. As media leaders serving many of the hardest to reach populations in the U.S., we know that public trust in government has eroded sharply, replaced by pervasive fear in the face of anti-immigrant policies and racist rhetoric.

We have a long history of informing, engaging, and advocating on behalf of our communities. But when people are paralyzed by fear or alienated by anger and distrust, not even trusted intermediaries will be able to convince them to participate in the 2020 census. In this climate, adding the citizenship question sends exactly the wrong message and puts the 2020 census at risk of an historic undercount.

Here is a sampling of comments from ethnic media leaders:

"It's a cynical ploy to diminish the influence of people of color," said Yawu Miller, editor of South Bay Banner, an African-American publication.

"Recent immigration policies have created a climate where immigrants, both legal as well as those who are undocumented, live in fear. Self-identifying as non-citizens in today's times is a risky proposition and those who are not citizens will not participate. It's as simple as that," said Darek Barcikowski with White Eagle News that serves the Polish-American community.

"Definitely adding the citizenship question will hurt participation. Even legal immigrants now have fear. Those who are not citizens will evade the questionnaire," noted Myong Sool Chang, editor of Korean Boston.

"People in the Turkish community don't want to share their status with anyone outside their own relatives. The question feels threatening to all immigrants, regardless of their status," observed Orhan Akkurt, publisher of Zamen Anerika.

"The citizenship question will suppress the count which will defeat the very purpose of the census," said Vandana Kumar with India Currents.

"The biggest undercount will be of 0 to 5 year olds, which means we won't be able to distinguish the identities of the next generation," said Amar Gupta, with Siliconeer, which serves the South Asian community.

Sandy Close is the director of Ethnic Media Services. To submit public comment, visit https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/06/08/2018-12365/proposed-information-collection-comment-request-2020-census. For tips on submitting public comment, visit https://fairimmigration.org/resources/census-2020-public-comment/.

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