Our editorial: Citizenship is valid Census question

The Detroit News

Gaining an accurate picture of the nation’s population is the whole purpose of the U.S. Census. If some key questions are deemed off limits, that mission is compromised.

Knowing the non-citizen population is key for those debating immigration and other issues.

And while the Trump administration’s intention to inquire for the first time since 1950 whether respondents are U.S. citizens has set the left’s hair on fire, it would seem a valid and valuable question.

Knowing the size of the non-citizen population is key information for policymakers debating immigration and other issues.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says the citizenship data is vital to enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, which forbids the dilution of minority populations in the redrawing of political district lines.

Still, a dozen Democratic-led states are vowing to sue the Commerce Department, which manages the decennial Census, claiming the question is unconstitutional and discriminatory.

That’s a stretch on both counts. For one thing, the Constitution gives the responsibility for crafting a questionnaire to the executive branch, and does not address whether inquiries about citizenship or related matters are appropriate. Up until 1950, the citizenship question was standard on the Census. The proposed 2018 question does not address legal status.

Critics contend asking the question will dissuade non-citizens who are in the country illegally from responding to the Census, for fear the information will be used to find and deport them. That fear is understandable, but should not stand in the way of obtaining an accurate accounting of the nation’s population.

Still, the reality is that those who live here illegally are already hesitant to fill out the Census form, even without the citizenship question. Adding the question is likely to further depress their participation.

That could hurt states such as California with large numbers of non-citizens among their residents, including many who don’t have legal status. Those states worry a drop off in responses will hurt them in the reapportionment process, since the Census is used to redistribute congressional seats among the states.

The citizenship status of a state’s residents is not factored in reapportionment. Citizens and non-citizens, legal and non-legal, are tallied alike.

That works against Michigan, which has among the smallest undocumented immigrant populations, estimated at under 400,000. It is a perennial loser in the redistribution to states with a much higher number of non-citizen residents.

Again, the goal of the Census is an accurate accounting of the population. If a significant portion of the population refuses to fill out the form, the value of the count falls into question. It also turns the Census into something other than an actual head-count, since in recent decades the bureau has resorted to best-guess estimates to allow for the perceived under-count.

If the question stays — and there’s a good argument for keeping it — the Census Bureau must work harder to assure respondents that their answers to the citizenship question will not be shared with immigration authorities. That promise should be clearly stated on the form.

Communities should also work harder to make sure non-citizens understand why filling out the Census form is important to them. Along with congressional seats, the head count is also used to divvy up federal resources among the states.

The Census should not be deterred in collecting detailed demographic information on the American population. The size of the non-citizen population is particularly relevant today — who’s being impacted by policies, and the size of the group, is essential information.

The answer to the reticence of any group to answering Census questions is not to block the bureau from fulfilling its mission, but to put to rest concerns about how the data will be used.