Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube

Census Rushes to Respond to Request to Add Citizenship Question

The Census Bureau is exploring options about adding a citizenship question to the next census, amid a firestorm of protest about the controversial proposal.

The Census Bureau is scrambling to respond to a last-minute request by the Justice Department to add a question on citizenship status to the 2020 census, according to hundreds of pages of emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The emails show that the DOJ’s December request set off a flurry of activity in the bureau as career Census officials hurried to research the history of how citizenship has been handled in past surveys, raced to come up with alternatives to the DOJ request and vented their frustration over public outrage on the issue.

As ProPublica first reported, the DOJ asked for the question to be added in a December letter, saying it needed more data to better enforce voting rights laws.

That created a firestorm, with civil rights groups, congressional Democrats and state attorneys general opposing the new question. They worry it would sow fear among immigrants and depress response rates. The once-a-decade census, which aims to count everyone residing in the U.S. regardless of citizenship status, determines not only how seats in Congress are distributed around the country, but also where the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars.

Others, including prominent Trump ally and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, have come out in favor of adding the citizenship question. In a Breitbart op-ed in January, Kobach argued, “A great nation must, at the very least, know how many citizens it has.”

In the newly obtained emails, Census officials discuss concerns that the public has lost faith in the census. Ron Jarmin, a veteran career official who is acting director of the bureau, and another official corresponded about a statement by the bureau’s National Advisory Committee that the census is in “crisis” because of concerns about confidentiality of data.

In January, the Census Bureau’s Associate Director and Chief Scientist, John Abowd, emailed colleagues a document with “four alternatives” in response to the DOJ’s request to add a citizenship question. The emails are heavily redacted and it’s not clear what those options are.

Jarmin also set up a meeting with the Justice Department about its request last month.

At one point, Jarmin responds to a CNN column raising the alarm on the citizenship question with the comment, “The lack of understanding and hysteria are amazing.”

Asked about the comment, a Census spokesman said, “We’re not insensitive to how stakeholders feel” and that Jarmin felt some news coverage has not conveyed that smaller surveys conducted by the Census already ask about citizenship status.

The spokesman said the bureau, which is part of the Department of Commerce, is still studying the request to add a citizenship question. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross has authority to make the final decision, which is expected by the end of March.

Do you have information about the Trump administration and the census? Contact Justin at [email protected] or via Signal at 774-826-6240.

Protect Independent Journalism

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that produces nonpartisan, evidence-based journalism to expose injustice, corruption and wrongdoing. We were founded ten years ago to fill a growing hole in journalism: newsrooms were (and still are) shrinking, and legacy funding models failing. Deep-dive reporting like ours is slow and expensive, and investigative journalism is a luxury in many newsrooms today — but it remains as critical as ever to democracy and our civic life. A decade (and five Pulitzer Prizes) later, ProPublica has built the largest investigative newsroom in the country. Our work has spurred reform through legislation, at the voting booth, and inside our nation’s most important institutions.

This story you’ve just finished was funded by our readers and we hope it inspires you to make a gift to ProPublica so that we can publish more investigations like this one that holds people in power to account and produces real change.

Your donation will help us ensure that we can continue this critical work. From the Trump Administration, criminal justice, health care, immigration and so much more, we are busier than ever covering stories you won’t see anywhere else. Make your gift of any amount today and join the tens of thousands of ProPublicans across the country, standing up for the power of independent journalism to produce real, lasting change. Thank you.

Donate Now

Portrait of Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a ProPublica reporter covering politics and government accountability. To securely send Justin documents or other files online, visit our SecureDrop page.

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page