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The US High Court Considers Citizenship Question For Census

Informational pamphlets are displayed an event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Massachusetts, April 1, 2019.
The US High Court Considers Citizenship Question For Census
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The United States Supreme Court will soon decide whether everyone who lives in America will be asked if she or he is a citizen.

The issue relates to the Census – that is, the survey that residents are required to fill out every 10 years. The next Census comes in 2020.

Lawyers for President Donald Trump’s government argue that officials need to use the Census to find out how many people living the U.S. are legal citizens. That way, they say, they can better protect citizens’ ability to vote in elections.

Lawyers opposed to the idea say non-citizens will not answer the survey because they are afraid of being removed. As a result, they say, the information gathered will be incorrect.

Census information is required by the Constitution to show how many people live in the country and where. The numbers are used to decide how many lawmakers an area can send to Congress, and how much influence a state can have in a presidential election. The information also influences the amount of federal money different areas receive for schools, roads and other services.

So, if non-citizens do not answer the Census, areas with high immigrant populations – such as Florida, California and Texas – could lose political power and money.

The current chief of the U.S. Census Bureau is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He says he does not have good evidence that will happen. But, he says, even if it did, the benefits of asking about citizenship outweigh the risks.

Six of the Census Bureau’s former directors have publicly disagreed with him. Judges in three states have also struck down Ross’s request. They said it violates the process for adding new Census questions, and it may harm the government’s ability to carry out the Census.

Critics have also questioned Ross’s political reasons for proposing the question.

The Supreme Court is now considering Ross’s argument and case.

Has this question been asked before?

Supporters point out that some form of a citizenship question was included in the Census every ten years between 1890 and 1950. But then several things happened.

One was that the number of immigrants to the U.S. dropped. Margo Anderson, a Census historian, told NBC News that the U.S. government passed a measure in 1924 restricting immigration. She said that, as a result, by the mid-1900s lawmakers were not very concerned about a citizenship question.

In addition, she said, survey methods changed. Officials found they could get better information and spend less money by creating two surveys. One survey was long and asked a number of questions, including about citizenship. The other was short and asked only a few questions, none about citizenship.

From 1970 to 2000, between 5 and 20% of residents received the long form survey. Officials used their answers to make informed judgments about the whole country. They found that, following a change to immigration laws in 1965, the percentage of foreign-born people in the country grew sharply. In 1970 about 5% of residents were born in another country. In 2000, nearly 11% were.

In the early 2000s, survey methods changed again. The Census Bureau began sending about 1 in 38 households a survey every year. It is called the American Community Survey. It is the government’s way to collect citizenship information, among other things.

Yet, Census Bureau chief Wilbur Ross says some people do not give honest answers to the questions in the survey. He wants to move the citizenship question from the American Community Survey to the Census. If the Supreme Court justices approve, the 2020 Census will ask of every U.S. resident: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

The Supreme Court is likely to announce its decision on the case in June.

I’m Caty Weaver.

VOA Learning English reporter Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

survey - n. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something​

resident - n. someone who lives in a particular place​

benefit - n. a good or helpful result or effect​