U.S. Supreme Court Expands Scope of Census Citizenship Question Case

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it is expanding the scope of the case against the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, agreeing to decide whether the move violated the Constitution.

The move comes after a federal judge in California ruled earlier this month that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the census, violated the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause.

The Constitution requires the enumeration (the accurate count) of every person living within the United States, regardless of each person’s citizenship status. Native-born, naturalized, legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants all are supposed to be documented. However, the Constitution does not require the documentation of the citizenship status of each resident. The citizenship question presumably prevents the government from conducting an accurate count of every living person in the country as it would discourage immigrants from reporting their true status.

The Supreme Court said it will will hear arguments in the case in April and rule before its term ends in June.

For more details, you can find dozens of online articles about the legal issues involved by starting at: https://duckduckgo.com/?q=U.S.+Supreme+Court+Expands+Scope+of+Census+Citizenship+Question+Case&t=h_&ia=web.


For that matter, the Constitution requires/permits only a counting of the people. It doesn’t authorize compiling a list of their names, ages, genders, relationship to the head of household, place of birth/national origin, language spoken at home, year of immigration, information on race, education, economic status, health, housing or transportation that have all been routinely collected.


    Nigel – but as genealogists, aren’t we glad that that all these questions were asked!
    I guess that these days people are more ready to question why governments take the actions that they do.

    We may worry that every step in our lives are documented now, but I wonder how much information will be available for future generations that will assist researchers as we look at our ancestors.


Absolutely correct. As any genealogist who has ever experienced the frustration of trying to research a family who lived in the USA before the Civil War knows only too well, until 1850 the US Census only asked for the name of the head of the household. Everyone else in the household was enumerated by anonymous head count in a series of boxes broken down by whether they were male or female, free persons (black or white) or slaves, and the age range into which they happened to fall.


The US Census has always responded to the current needs of the country for information concerning its citizens and thus provides us with a look at the history of the nation. Look at the 1820 census: fresh out of a war with Great Britain, the government needed to know how many able-bodied males were available in case of more such hostilities; consequently we have that odd, one-time-only age category for males 16-18 years of age who are also counted in the column for males 16-26.
The 1840 census was concerned with the aging of our population and so we have three 5-year range columns, eight 10-year range columns, and one for those over age 100.
And then when we get to that wonderful 1850 and its companion the 1860, we see that the government wants to know a LOT about its citizens: individual household member ages, occupations, real estate values (potential tax base??); birthplace: we are getting close to the citizenship question here, but actually immigration had picked up considerably with the Irish potato famine and the government wanted to know the impact on our population; and then the literacy of the populace with the “can’t read or write” column. We genealogists love the 1850, but I can imagine the reaction of a lot of citizens to such questions: “And why would I want to tell you that?”
And then the sweet 1870 which asked where our parents were born – again looking at the immigration question, AND a column about whether we were eligible to vote (looks like a citizenship thing to me).
The 1880 adds health columns (for “idiots” and our “insane” relatives – can you imagine putting that on the 2020 census?) as well as a repeat of the birthplace questions for us and our parents. The 1890 asked point blank how many years you lived here and whether you were a naturalized citizen or had at least filed papers to become naturalized. So the citizenship question first appeared on the 1890 census and was on every one through 1940 (and I assume those since that time); the 1920 even wanted to know what our native language was as well as that of our parents. And the 1940, under place of birth, said to distinguish between Canada-French and Canada-English as well as Irish Free State from Northern Ireland.
From what we see in early census records, people were proud of their heritage and not worried about the government knowing their citizenship because it was their desire to become citizens at some point – to meld into this great melting pot. Only recently has there been an issue of people not being able to get citizenship – quotas, perhaps? – but it is increasingly apparent that some of the immigrants today do not desire citizenship, are not here to become a part of this great melting pot – not interested in learning the language, preferring that we accommodate theirs. So looking at the HISTORY of our census, it is apparent that a citizenship question is EXACTLY what should be on the census form, given the current state of the nation’s population.
But with the question receiving so much media attention, even if the citizenship question is left off, I doubt that very many illegal immigrants will be very interested in giving out ANY information for fear they will be “found” and deported. I know that if I were here illegally the LAST thing I would want to do is fill out information about ANYTHING I was doing: my whole purpose would be to remain as invisible as possible for as long as possible while still maintaining the chance to reap whatever benefits I could from living here.

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    It’s not true generally that people here illegally do not want to become citizens. They CAN’T become citizens and will be deported when found they are undocumented. You only have to have been reading or watching the news for the last umpteen years to know that.


Am I the only 66 year-old out here who knows that people lie all the time on the census? To fear the census is absurd, because no one verifies the answers!


    No, Brian, you’re not the only one — one piece of evidence obtained from the government by subpoena during the discovery phase of the litigation in New York, revealed that, during tests of the effects of including a citizenship question in an earlier census questionnaire, the staff at the Census Bureau discovered that something like 30% of non-citizens who actually returned the questionnaire said they were citizens when they weren’t.

    Back when the question was still being asked as a matter of course, my paternal grandmother’s sister not only said she was a natural born citizen of the USA and gave a date of birth falling just after the date when her parents first arrived here. However, my cousin found her birth had actually been registered by her parents several years in Glasgow, Scotland, several years before the family left for America.

    My mother’s best friend in high school was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, who was embarrassed by the fact that her grandmother did not speak English, refused to learn the language and took no interest in the beautiful embroidery work that both her grandmother and her mother created, until very late in life, after both of them had passed on.

    My mother came from a small rural town where her family, and all the neighbors’ families had lived and died and married each other for 150 years. She could never understand why anyone fortunate enough to have parents or grandparents who could teach them a second language and hand down the oral history and traditions of the places their family had come from would ever throw away such an opportunity. But she was so secure in the knowledge of her own American heritage that she didn’t understand the embarrassment caused them by the way so many others snubbed and looked down on them and made them feel that no matter how hard they tried, they could never work hard enough or be good enough, smart enough, or patriotic enough to ever be considered “real Americans.” So they lied and tried to hide their heritage, and in some cases turned around and subjexted the next group of immigrants to the same kind of disrespect and shaming they themselves had suffered from.


Brian, you are so right. One of my relatives was living in a college dorm during the 2010 census. Her floor supervisor came around with the census forms and made them fill them out. The kids all took it as a joke and while they put down their names correctly, their other answers were completely fictitious. The floor supervisor thought it was hilarious and turned in their forms uncorrected.


Another concern is scams. Recently, I have answered local concerns and distrust posted on the NextDoor app regarding the American Community Services Survey, 1 of 5 annual surveys send out by the bureau. The Census Bureau actually has a link for verifying that you received a real survey. Also, two decades ago, I was a Government Information Services librarian in charge of my library’s Federal Depository Library Program collection. Most of my patrons were interested in stats from a variety of government agencies, including the Census Bureau. And most were business persons or economists. Obviously a number of constituencies rely on this data and influence what is collected.


David Paul Davenport March 19, 2019 at 11:15 am

I very much fear that the 2020 census will be much delayed by these challenges to the citizenship and other such matters. One could argue that taking the census is stayed until all of the Court challenges are exhausted, thereby undermining credibility of the count, and potentially delaying the redrawing of Congressional Districts. I personally feel that this is a continuation of the efforts begun prior to the 1990 census to use statistical samples, based on such things as utility bills, to extrapolate the current population (I worked for the Bureau at the Atlanta Field Office at the time). Statisticians have demonstrated that a physical count is no better than extrapolations.Yes, the census “requires” a count, but it also makes other pronouncements that have been eroded over time, so the ten year count of the population may be the next thing to become a dinosaur.


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