All over the country, there are ongoing discussions and a legal battle around the constitutionality of putting a citizenship question on the census. In the ongoing legal battle between the Trump administration and various judges who have raised questions about the constitutionality of putting the question on the census, a federal judge in New York ruled that it was unlawful for the question to appear on the 2020 census. The inclusion of a question concerning citizenship status in the census could affect and frighten North Carolinians.
The history of the citizenship question and the census is more complex than it might appear. To claim an understanding of when and how citizenship has appeared on past censuses it is necessary for someone to know the various compositions of past censuses. In the census of 1950, there was a question that asked where each member of a household was born. If there were foreign born members of a household, they were then asked if they had been naturalized. In 1960, the question was gone, and there was only a question about someone’s place of birth.
In 1970, the census was split from one questionnaire into two questionnaires, one long form and one short form. The short form didn’t ask about citizenship at all. The long form, which wasn’t sent to the majority of households, asked about citizenship. Generally, the question was some variation of “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”.
The most recent variation of this is even stranger, since no longer is there a short form or long form questionnaire being sent out, but actually it is the American Community Survey. The form in 2010 did not include a question about citizenship but in the past, the American Community Survey has included questions about citizenship.
In North Carolina, there is significant fear by organizations and leaders such as Stacey Carless of the N.C. Counts Coalition and Chavi Koneru of the North Carolina Asian Americans Together group that a citizenship question would discourage participation in the census data collecting process and the impact of a lack of participation wouldn’t be limited to inaccurate data collection. Without accurate census data, funding for census driven programs and even political representation would be on the line for North Carolinians everywhere regardless of immigration or naturalization status.
Advocates and other members of communities like the Asian American community and the Latinx community are worried that questions like the citizenship question are going to be used to track households. Such thoughts are especially anxiety inducing for members of the Asian American community since in the 1940’s, census data was actually used by the government of the United States to help track and capture Japanese Americans and their families to send them to internment camps. Some Japanese Americans can still remember what it was like in those camps, such as famed actor George Takei, who was taken from his family home in Los Angeles to a variety of camps and facilities including the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arizona and later the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in California.
The reality of the fears of the citizenship question on the census are real for many and sadly if frightened individuals don’t participate in the census because of the question everyone in North Carolina has the potential to be negatively affected.