Census citizenship question raises concerns in Mich.

Mark Hicks, and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The 2020 Census will ask people about their citizenship, a move that could have implications that reverberate for years in Michigan if significantly fewer residents fill out the survey.


Some experts and advocates fear that could dilute political representation while robbing many communities of federal dollars — affecting initiatives such as early education and food assistance.

“If for whatever reason you have a bad census, it could affect the health surveys, the unemployment surveys,” said Lisa Neidert, assistant research scientist for the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center. “It’s a really serious problem.”

Not since 1950 has the census collected citizenship data from the whole population, rather than just a population sample, says the Congressional Research Service.

The population count taken every 10 years is more than an academic exercise. It’s required by the Constitution and used to determine the number of seats each state has in the House as well as how federal money is distributed to local communities. It helps communities determine where to build schools, hospitals, grocery stores and more.

Congress delegates to the commerce secretary the authority to determine census questions. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had until the end of March to submit the list of questions to Congress. The department said the citizenship information would help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voting rights and helps prevent the unlawful dilution of the vote on the basis of race.

“Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts,” the department said in its announcement.

The 2016 American Community Survey, a separate, yearly survey sampling only a portion of the population, found Michigan had about 319,280 non-citizens. That ranks the state below others, such as California or Texas, with significantly higher populations that could face more challenges if that demographic isn’t counted, Neidert said.

However, those who choose not to fill out the longer survey are “gone for the next 10 years, for all intents and purposes,” said Kurt Metzger, a demographer and Data Driven Detroit director emeritus. That can mean an inaccurate tally that officials check to decide funding on everything from grants to housing programs.

“You’ve got to prove the need and show the numbers,” Metzger said.

“The pie is only so big and everybody’s competing for their piece. The more accurate the count, the better chance you have of getting your fair share. For everybody you miss, that just means you’re getting less on a whole list of programs.”

The Justice Department said in a statement it was important to restore the use of a citizenship question in the 10-year census because it’s used for redistricting purposes, and the yearly survey is not the most appropriate data to use for that purpose.

But some officials who work with Michigan’s foreign-born population believe those residents might view the query differently.

“It’s being pushed by this anti-immigrant rhetoric and to most people it feels like a question to help deportation and immigration crackdowns,” said Susan Reed, managing attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center who also serves the Michigan Complete County Committee.

“We’re trying to get everyone counted, that’s the goal. It’s not just with the Census but even school registration, it gives people anxiety. This will devastate our immigrant communities if they choose to not fill the census.”

Kary Moss, executive director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, added: “It’s well established that asking people about their citizenship drives down participation rates in the Census, which leads to under-counting in minority communities.

“That effects federal funding to states and cities and it adds to the climate of fear around deportation and immigrants generally.”

Hassan Jaber, executive director and CEO of Dearborn-based ACCESS, said the citizenship question is targeted at communities with large immigrant populations like Dearborn, Troy and Sterling Heights.

“This is discouraging and will reflect in our communities not only through federal funding but through representation,” Jaber said.

Democratic lawmakers had been bracing for the decision in recent months. They’ve held press conferences and made it a point to question Ross about his thinking during appearance at congressional hearings.

Some Republican lawmakers hailed the decision on Tuesday. GOP Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas had sent a letter to the Commerce Department asking Ross to add the question.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.