WASHINGTON — The Trump administration isn't telling the full story on its politically charged decision to ask people about their citizenship in the 2020 census.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was flat-out wrong in claiming the citizenship question had been regularly included in the Census Bureau's decennial survey to all U.S. households in recent decades. She also didn't provide context in asserting that a greater level of citizenship data is needed to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The decision to include the question in the 2020 census has stirred worry among opponents that it will intimidate immigrants, leading to an undercount and decreased political representation in Democratic-leaning communities where they tend to live.
Meantime, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who announced his department's move to change the 2020 census, appeared to skew the science behind his decision when he asserted that the impact of asking about citizenship had been "well-tested."
Here's a look at some of the statements:
SANDERS, on the Trump administration's decision to ask people about their citizenship in the 2020 census: "This is a question that's been included in every census since 1965 with the exception of 2010, when it was removed. ... And again, this is something that has been part of the census for decades and something that the Department of Commerce felt strongly needed to be included again." — Press briefing Tuesday.
COMMERCE DEPARTMENT: "Between 1820 and 1950, almost every decennial census asked a question on citizenship in some form." — Statement on Monday.
THE FACTS: Sanders is incorrect. The Commerce Department statement is also problematic.
The Census Bureau hasn't included a citizenship question in its once-a-decade survey sent to all U.S. households since 1950, before the Civil Rights era and passage of a 1965 law designed to help ensure minority groups in the count are fully represented. The nation's count is based on the total resident population — both citizens and noncitizens — and used to determine how many U.S. representatives each state gets in the U.S. House.
The citizenship question was not in the 1960 census, according to a copy of the form posted on the Census Bureau website, and no census was held in 1965.
From 1970 to 2000, the question was included only in the long-form section of the census survey, sent to a portion of U.S. households. After 2000, the question has been asked on the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, a separate poll designed to replace the census long form and sent only to a sample of U.S. households.
The Commerce Department's assertion that the citizenship question was asked on "almost" every decennial census between 1820 and 1950 also pushes the limits of reality. According to the Census Bureau, the question wasn't asked in four of those censuses —1840, 1850, 1860 or 1880.
Between 1820 and 1950, a total of 14 censuses were held. That means more than 1 in 4 surveys during that time period lacked the citizenship question.
Not exactly "almost."
COMMERCE SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS: "Census Bureau surveys of sample populations continue to ask citizenship questions to this day. In 2000, the decennial census 'long form' survey, which was distributed to one in six people in the U.S., included a question on citizenship. Following the 2000 decennial census, the 'long form' sample was replaced by the American Community Survey, which has included a citizenship question since 2005. Therefore, the citizenship question has been well tested." — Memo on Monday explaining decision to include citizenship question.
THE FACTS: It's true the question has been asked before in surveys sent to a portion of U.S. households. But it's disputable that the question's impact has been "well-tested" when it comes to including it on a government form aimed at counting every resident in the U.S. States, communities and businesses depend on the full census for key decisions on where to build schools, hospitals, stores and more, information only available in a comprehensive count.
In a letter to Ross in January, six Census Bureau directors from past Republican and Democratic administrations questioned the science behind making such a decision, stressing that the effect of adding a citizenship question in the modern era is "completely unknown" and would "increase the risks to the 2020 enumeration."
They noted that the Commerce Department had failed to disclose last year its plans to include a citizenship topic in the survey as required by federal law. The former census directors also said the last-minute change posed a "grave risk" to the count because of scientific assumptions and long-term planning already underway for staffing, office sites and public awareness efforts in communities across the U.S.
In addition, while smaller population surveys can be adjusted statistically to account for people who don't respond, the decennial census is an actual hard count of the population. That means residents who are missed or who dodge the survey — whether out of fears of deportation or distrust of the government — simply do not get counted.
SANDERS: The government wants to ask about citizenship "to protect voters, and specifically to help us better comply with the Voting Rights Act." — Press briefing Tuesday.
THE FACTS: The Justice Department has been enforcing the Voting Rights Act with citizenship data already available from government surveys. Whether the federal government actually needs the additional level of detail is not cut and dried as Sanders suggests.
The Census Bureau currently collects data on citizenship to comply with the 1965 law, which was passed to help protect minority groups' political rights, via forms sent to a portion of households.
Ross argues the current level of data is "insufficient in scope, detail, and certainty" for use in identifying voting rights violations. But the Justice Department has been enforcing the civil rights law with that level of data since 1970.
Meantime, civil rights groups cite a greater harm to the political rights of minority groups if a citizenship question on the decennial census form dissuades immigrants from participating, resulting in diminished representation in the U.S. House.
At least 12 states are planning federal lawsuits to block Ross' decision to add the citizenship question in 2020, saying it will lead to fewer people being counted. California has already filed its lawsuit.
As a practical matter, the court challenges could keep the issue in limbo long enough to make it impossible to include the citizenship question, given the extensive lead time required to print census forms and readjust software.