Fact-Check: Expert Debunks Claim Citizenship Question Reduces Census Accuracy

census document form and ball point ink pen on American flag for 2020
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Contrary to left-wing news media claims, restoring the “citizenship question” to the national census will yield more accurate data related to both legal and illegal immigration, explained Hans von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow, in a Wednesday interview on SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight with host Rebecca Mansour and special guest host Dylan Gwinn.

Democrats such as Reps. Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Ilhan Omar (MN) reject the Trump administration’s move to restore inquiries regarding citizenship on the census. The former derided the idea as a “racialized” move that “impacts directly communities of color.” The latter claimed that collection of citizenship data via the census will “increase fear” in “our communities.”

Many of those polled by the census — citizens and otherwise — already skip certain questions or avoid the questionnaire altogether.

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“I don’t think the critics are correct, but in any event, even if they were correct, it wouldn’t matter,” said von Spakovsky. “And the reason it wouldn’t matter is that the American people skip all kinds of questions on the census. There are a lot of people that resent being asked, for example, what race or ethnic group they are part of , and they have a non-response rate on those questions.”

Ignoring some of the census’s questions — or the entire questionnaire — “doesn’t matter,” said von Spakovsky, “because the Census Bureau literally hires millions of temporary workers whose only job it is to go knock on the doors of people who have either not answered questions on the census form they sent back [and] to go after the percentage of Americans who don’t fill out the form at all.”

“They do that every census,” continued von Spakovsky, “because even without the citizenship question on it they have a problem [with incomplete census forms], and they have workers out there whose only job it is to go out there and get this information. So that’s something that’s already taken care of.”

Temporary workers for the Census Bureau are deployed to “every household in America” that submits incomplete census forms or ignores the census questionnaire, noted von Spakosky. “A temporary worker working for the Census Bureau will show up at your door [to] get you to finish the form and finish the questions,” he stated, “and they are extremely persistent about doing that.”

“The Census Bureau’s estimate of the accuracy rate of the census — if they put the citizenship question on there — was 98 percent accuracy,” stated von Spakovsky. “That’s pretty good. So the percentage of inaccuracy generated by supposedly people not answering the question and not responding to the intensive follow-up was very small.”

Mansour invited von Spakovsky to share the history of citizenship inquiries on the census.

“The first time the citizenship question was on the census was 1820,” remarked von Spakovsky. “It was then consistently on the census up through 1950. In 1950, the Census Bureau decided that rather than send out one census form, they would send out two forms: a short-form and what they called a long-form. 

Von Spakovsky explained how the Obama administration removed the “citizenship question” from the census in 2010, transferring it a new Census Bureau analysis entitled the American Community Survey.

“The long-form had more questions on it [and] went out to 1-in-6 households across the country, and it also had a citizenship question on it,” recalled von Spakovsky. “The long-form was used through the 2000 census. The 2000 census — the long-form — was sent out with the citizenship question on it. They then decided during the Obama administration in 2010 not to send out the long-form anymore. Instead, they would only send out the short-form, but they decided to create a second survey form in order to get more current information.”

Von Spakovsky went on, “[The American Community Survey] doesn’t go out every ten years. It goes out every year. … It’s very long. It has a lot of questions on it. it goes out to 1-in-36 households. It has a citizenship question on it. The citizenship question is currently being sent out in a Census Bureau survey. The only thing the Trump administration said was, ‘We’re going to take that citizenship question that is on that current survey sent out by the Census Bureau, and we’re going to move it back to the regular census form.’ And yet that’s portrayed as some sort of nefarious, unprecedented action by the administration.”

Von Spakovsky highlighted the need for accurate data regarding demographics in order to have informed analyses of political questions related to immigration.

“How can you have an informed debate about an issue of that importance if you don’t get accurate data on the number of non-citizens across the country?” asked von Spakovsky, “and you’re going to get more accurate data if it’s on the general census form than you are with the limited data from the American Community Survey form, because it goes to such a  smaller portion of the American population.”

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