Census 2020:  The Citizenship Question and What It Means for Immigrant Communities

What is the Census and why is it important?
The decennial Census is a survey conducted every 10 years to count every person living in the United States.  The Census collects population data that is used for many purposes, including apportionment of seats in Congress and deciding how federal dollars will be distributed to local and state governments

A Look Back At the Census

The U.S. Census dates back to 1790 and is conducted every 10 years.  The goal of the Census is to count individuals living in the United States, regardless of immigration status.  It is a tool for the U.S. government to obtain a snap shot of our nation’s demographics.  Despite the current debate, the government did ask about citizenship on the Census short form up until 1950.  After this, the American Community Survey, distributed every year, housed the citizenship question on its form. 

The US government has had a history of misusing Census data against American citizens.  The most notable of these was in the 1940s when the Bureau used information from the 1940 Census to help send Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII.    

In the early years of the Census, questions related to representation of African Americans (“free person”) post slavery and American Indians, (“Indians not taxed”) surfaced.  While eventually both populations were fully included in the count, these are historical reminders of the fight for representation of communities of color in the United States and a history we cannot move backward.  

Over time, the Census Bureau has made policy changes and Congress has introduced resolutions to increase protections and confidentiality for survey participants.  

 Census data is used to:

  • Decide how many congressional districts each state will have based on the number of people (citizens and non-citizens alike) counted. This is called apportionment. The fewer people a state has, the fewer seats in Congress they get. This means fewer votes in the Presidential elections and a dilutions of the political power of people of color. 
  • Calculate how much money state and local governments will have to spend on programs like Medicaid, SNAP, and Pell grants. 
  • Determine who gets new schools, hospitals and roads. Areas are higher populations might see their communities grow with money from the federal government. 
If the Census doesn’t count all of us, our communities could lose money for
important programs and resources and even lose Congressional districts in states.



The Leadership Conference 2020 Census Materials

The Leadership Conference Factsheet: Citizenship and Legal Status Questions on the 2020 Census

Asian Americans Advancing Justice: Debunking the Myths about the Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census Form