The Corner

Law & the Courts

What’s Wrong with Asking about Citizenship on the Census?

A newly naturalized American citizen holds her new country’s flag and her naturalization papers as she is sworn in during a U.S. citizenship ceremony in Los Angeles, Calif. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

A donnybrook has broken out over how the administration decided to add a citizenship question to the census. We’ll presumably learn more one way or the other, but it’s worth asking why it is considered such a scandal to ask about citizenship, which is a question on other government surveys and isn’t new on the census. Here is the Census Bureau itself describing what it asks as part of the very important, ongoing American Community Survey and why:

We ask questions about a person’s place of birth, citizenship, and year of entry into the United States to create data about citizens, noncitizens, and the foreign-born population.

Agencies and policymakers use our published statistics to set and evaluate immigration policies and laws, understand the experience of different immigrant groups, and enforce laws, policies, and regulations against discrimination based on national origin. These statistics also help tailor services to accommodate cultural differences.

And explaining the origins of these questions:

Citizenship originated with the 1820 Census, place of birth originated with the 1850 Census, and year of entry originated with the 1890 Census. They transferred to the ACS in 2005 when it replaced the decennial census long form.

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