Census citizenship question

NICK EICHER, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Thursday, March 29th. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. The Trump administration caused an uproar this week with its proposal to add a citizenship question to the 20-20 census form.

EICHER: Many Americans consider the census just another long, tedious government form to fill in. But the data it collects determines representation in Congress … not to mention the way that hundreds of billions of federal dollars get spent. WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has more.

JIM HENRY, REPORTER: Controversy over the census began before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the founders decided the Constitution should require a census every 10 years to determine the number of members each state would have in the House of Representatives. But northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders argued over whether slaves should be counted. 

The result was the infamous “Three-Fifths Compromise” that eventually become part of the Constitution. 

But Professor John Kaminski at the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says — even that didn’t end the controversy. 

AUDIO: The northerners are upset that three-fifths of the slaves are being counted. They think that’s unfair. They think there will be greater representation of the southern states. The southerners… would like slaves to be counted as full fledged individuals. 

This week, the census again became a hotly debated topic, when the Commerce Department announced it would bring back a citizenship question for the 2020 census. 

Every census from 1890 to 1950 had one— and it’s still asked in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That samples 3.5 million homes each year. 

Still— more than a dozen blue states say they’ll sue the Trump administration over the issue. And California already has.

Less than 24 hours after the Commerce Department announcement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed suit… saying the citizenship question is illegal

AUDIO: Given the way that this administration has attacked immigrants, you can understand why immigrant families would be afraid to fill out the census questionnaire. 

The Commerce Department said it made the move in response to a request from the Justice Department—which said it would help enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But Teri Ann Lowenthal— a former staffer on the House Census & Population Subcommittee— says undocumented immigrants will see the citizenship question as a setup for deportation. 

AUDIO: There is a palpable climate of fear in many communities now and anti-immigrant rhetoric and stepped up federal law enforcement activities have driven millions of people, immigrants, into the shadows. They’re skeptical that their census responses will be kept confidential and not used to harm them or their families no matter what the law says.

Legally— no one has to answer the citizenship question. The only required response is how many individuals are living in a household.

California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa says no one has to fear answering any census question. 

AUDIO: It’s been established for decades that it’s not usable by the FBI or by any group in order to further an investigation. That’s been true under Republican and Democrats. 

Issa says the controversy is politically motivated because states with high immigrant populations fear a citizenship question could cause them to lose power in Congress. 

The Commerce Department has until Saturday to provide Congress with the final language. Then lawmakers must approve the census questions— guaranteeing that the political posturing has only begun. 

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File) In this Oct. 12, 2017, file photo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss preparing for the 2020 Census, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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