Photo courtesy of Creative Commons 

As the 2020 census approaches, contention is on the rise about whether the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., and the Census Bureau can add a question about citizenship to the questionnaire. The issue has made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments were heard on Tuesday, April 23, in the case of Department of Commerce v. New York, et al. The results of this case could discourage undocumented individuals from completing the census, which could impact how constituents are represented, including in Democratic districts, such as the Chicagoland area.

When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, the first instruction listed for the government was for an “actual enumeration” of the people — aka the census. The great task of counting every resident of the United States is accomplished every 10 years and usually doesn’t pass without some sort of fanfare (how could it, it only comes about once a decade).

The issue arose when the Department of Commerce first instructed the Census Bureau to add the question, citing that is was for the sake of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which wants to collect data on citizenship in order to better enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Challengers to the case (which include 18 states, the District of Columbia, 15 cities and counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors and interest groups) see the question of citizenship as an action by the Trump administration to discriminate against minorities by undercounting and misrepresenting certain groups in the U.S.

While previous censuses have asked for more than the necessary information, which includes sex, age, race and ethnicity, the question of citizenship deters from the main purpose of the census — to know how many and where people live in the U.S.

This information is important for how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and shapes how the districts are drawn. Census information also allocates federal funding based on population that goes towards infrastructure, schools, hospitals and other community services.

Legal professionals and politicians are concerned that the addition of citizenship question could potentially discourage non-citizens from reporting their information. This would result in roughly 6.5 million people deterred from completing the census—which is a little bit less than the population of Indiana, the 17th most populated state. It is estimated that there are about 307,000 undocumented immigrants in Cook County and over half of which are in Chicago. A census miscount could have a toll on Chicagoland’s federal funding, particularly in areas that already face marginalization.  

If this many people defer from the census, it could result in the loss of federal funding in certain areas, votes in the Electoral College, seats in the House of Representatives and representation for minorities in local governing bodies. Most undocumented immigrants reside in large metropolitan areas, the most populated being Los Angeles and New York. These two cities are in the largest Democratic states with the most electoral votes, and are at risk of losing electoral votes if large populations are discouraged from being represented in the census.  

Back at the courts, Judge Jesse Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York joined the majority opinion in ruling that Ross’s decision violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). In his lengthy opinion, Furman detailed that the nature of Ross’s decision was arbitrary and capricious, that he failed to notify Congress and that the reason for adding the citizenship question was pretextual— all of which are violations of the APA. The DOJ and Ross filed a petition to appeal the lower court ruling directly to the Supreme Court, most likely to achieve a binding decision on the issue.

In a dissenting opinion, in Oct. 2018, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote: “Most censuses in our history have asked about citizenship, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently decided to reinstate a citizenship question in the 2020 census.”

Oral arguments for Department of Commerce v. New York, et al. were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Apr. 23, and opinions are yet to be announced.