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U Of I Professor: Debate Around Citizenship Question Could Decrease Census Participation

Julie Dowling smiling and sitting in front of several rows of bookshelves

Julie Dowling is one of several researchers who opposes adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census. Dowling is a professor at the University of Illinois, and vice chair of the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations. Fred Zwicky/University of Illinois

Late last month, the Supreme Court ruled that adding a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census violates federal law. Despite the ruling, the Trump administration recently announced their intention to try to find a way to put the question on the form.

Julie Dowling is one of several researchers who opposes adding the citizenship question. Dowling is a professor at the University of Illinois, and vice chair of the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations.

In an interview with Illinois Public Media, Dowling expressed concern that the public debate about adding the question to the census may decrease participation in the once in a decade household head count  — regardless of whether the question actually appears on the form.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do you oppose adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census?

In our current political climate there's a lot of hostility towards immigration. We have a humanitarian crisis along our borders. And to have something like that on the census form right now, during this political climate, would be highly problematic. We already have data on citizenship that we get from the American Community Survey. And we don't really need to have that on the census forum, which is really meant to just be a head count of every individual living here for the purposes of congressional representation and funding. So to have anything on there that would possibly cause hesitation or decreased participation, it's just that it's not necessary. It's not something you want to have. There's also the issue that the question as it was being planned was not tested. And so you really can't put a question on a form that goes out to everyone in this country without seeing how it's going to work.

And why is it important that people that aren't citizens participate in the census?

It's supposed to be a head count of everyone, everyone living in this country, whether or not you are a citizen or not, and that includes legal, permanent residents, because many individuals are here legally, but are not citizens, because they have not pursued or are not eligible as of yet to pursue their citizenship. You also want to have people who are undocumented, but they still utilize resources in the community in the area. And that's important for planning, say, you know, where should a hospital go? Where should a school go? Those individuals are still a part of our society, regardless of whether or not they are a citizen or not.

Do you think the Trump administration's attempt to add this question to the 2020 census will have any impact on participation even though it won't be on the census?

Well, the thing is that a little over a year ago, is when we started seeing this in the media, about the attempts to add a citizenship question. And so last summer, when they were doing sort of a dress rehearsal for the census in Providence, Rhode Island, they did something called the Census 2018 End To End Test. And even during that test, even though, on that form, there was no citizenship question, you were still seeing some people not wanting to participate because of the citizenship question. And it wasn't on the form yet.

And in a state like Illinois, are you concerned that this is going to impact participation here?

Well, yes, Illinois is a very diverse state with a lot of immigrant communities, and a lot at stake here, in terms of congressional representation and federal funding, with regard to the census. And so I think it'll be really, really important in terms of the messaging, to be sure people know and understand that it's not going to be there on the form, the citizenship question. And also to get them to understand the importance of their participation, because we have high levels of undercount in certain pockets of Illinois, and being sure to reach those individuals that are considered to be hard to count, which includes linguistic and racial minorities, lower income persons, rural communities. And so we're going to do a lot of outreach with these communities to be sure people understand that their participation is important.

What's at stake for Illinois if we don't do those outreach efforts, if the state has an undercount of these populations?

We're looking at a lot of loss of federal funds. You also have the loss of congressional representation, the possibility of losing seats in Congress, due to a lack of counts in certain communities. There's just so much that your community will lose out on if you don't fill this out.

What can Illinois and other states do to encourage participation in the census?

I think there's going to be a lot of partnering with community organizations to try to reach these communities. And so you want to look at trusted members of those communities to get that messaging out. People are much more likely to trust a community organizer or a specific organization that they've been dealing with themselves already. So partnering with local communities, with schools, with churches, with community organizations, to be able to do outreach with these populations, because they're not necessarily going to trust someone who comes from the (Census) Bureau. They're going to trust someone telling them to do this who they already know.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines