The Commerce Department has reinstated a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a move some argue can be counterproductive to getting accurate counts of who lives in the United States.
The U.S. Census Bureau counts the total number of people in the country — not the total number of citizens — every 10 years. Though it usually doesn't ask about a person's citizenship status, the Justice Department asked the agency late last year to include the question.
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The Census count is used to redraw congressional districts, so it can affect the makeup of Congress.
In a statement released Monday night, the Commerce Department said the question was being added to help enforce the Voting Rights Act and pointed out that previous Census surveys before 1950 consistently asked citizenship questions.
Critics were quick to blast the department's justification, saying the move was designed to undercount immigrants and minorities.
In recent weeks, congressional lawmakers, mayors and civil rights activists have ramped up efforts to urge federal officials to reject the question and have called on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to turn down the request.
"This is not the time to parachute in and try to throw something in at the last minute, particularly something so incendiary that is likely to impact people's willingness to participate," said Terry Ao Minnis, director of Census and Voting Programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Minnis and other opponents say adding the question is unnecessary and will lead to an inaccurate count because some people may be afraid to fill out the form.
On March 15, a group of 10 U.S. senators sent a letter to John Gore, the acting assistant attorney general, asking him about his involvement in originating the request for the Census Bureau to add the citizenship question and what role the White House and other entities had played.
The senators wrote: "We are deeply troubled not just by the request to add a citizenship question, but by the impact that such a question would have on the accuracy on the 2020 Census."
They wrote they are concerned that such a question would "depress participation among immigrants and those who live in mixed-status households."
Late Monday, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued a statement, saying: "This untimely, unnecessary, and untested citizenship question will disrupt planning at a critical point, undermine years of painstaking preparation, and increase costs significantly, putting a successful, accurate count at risk.
"The question is unnecessarily intrusive and will raise concerns in all households – native- and foreign-born, citizen and non-citizen – about the confidentiality of information provided to the government and how government authorities may use that information," the statement added.
Some supporters of adding the question counter that it's a modest change and say the opposition is exaggerated.
"The Trump administration is simply trying to get accurate information on the American population,'' Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in an op-ed in USA TODAY last month. "It's not new; previous Censuses have asked this question. Hostility to this limited reform is overblown, though unfortunately to be expected."
The agency has until March 31 to submit Census questions to Congress.
Contributing: Alan Gomez, Deborah Barfield Berry and Jessica Estepa. Follow Carolyn McAtee Cerbin on Twitter: @carolyncerbin