The Supreme Court has ruled that including a citizenship question on the decennial census is permitted by the Constitution, but that the Commerce Department’s stated reason for adding the question is not supported by the facts. The case will now return to a lower court. It is not clear whether a final determination can be made in time to include the question on the 2020 Census, even if different justification is provided.
Those who oppose adding the question argued in court that it would make non-citizens, even those with legal status in the U.S., less likely to respond to the 2020 Census because of concerns about immigration enforcement. Rural residents, especially those who live in remote areas, and minorities are already undercounted.
The nine Justices split differently in parts of the June 27, 2019 decision in Department of Commerce v. New York. Five justices – Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Thomas – comprised the majority holding that the Constitution allows inclusion of a citizenship question. A majority consisting of Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor held that the Commerce Department must provide a better explanation of its reasons for including the question. Enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was the Department’s public rationale for asking about citizenship, but evidence cited by the court indicated that was not its real motivation.
The decennial census did include a question about citizenship until 1950. From 1960 to 2000, the question was included on the “long form” census questionnaire that went to a sample of households and asked more detailed questions than the “short form” distributed to everyone. In 2010 the American Community Survey (ACS) replaced the long form and began asking about citizenship. The ACS surveys a sample of the population every year, so its data is constantly updated, unlike the census count every ten years.
Based on the most recent ACS, the Census Bureau estimates that 2.8 percent of the population in rural places and small towns are non-citizens. To view the data for your community and its reliability, visit HAC’s Rural Data Portal.