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Census Director Tries To Quell Fears About Citizenship Question In SLC Visit

A panel discusses the census.
Nicole Nixon
From left, Natalie Gochnour of the Kem C. Gardner Institute, U.S. Census Director Steven Dillingham, and Regional Census Diretor Cathy Lacy discuss the 2020 census.

Immigrants shouldn’t be afraid of a controversial question about citizenship status that could be included on next year’s national headcount, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said during a Salt Lake City visit Tuesday.

The Trump administration wants to includethe citizenship question in next year’s census, but critics say it could discourage some groups from participating.

The question is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to make a decision by the end of June.

Dillingham has not taken a position on the issue, but said the Census Bureau is prepared to carry out the nationwide survey in 2020 whether the question is on the form or not.

At a forum about the census hosted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute, he emphasized that individual responses to the once-every-decade survey are confidential.  

“We hope that when people really learn the protections we have in place, their fears may be unfounded,” he said. “If the question is in there, we encourage everyone to answer it. It’s a civic responsibility.”

The citizenship question proposed for the 2020 Census.

  Regional Census Director Cathy Lacy also tried to quell concerns about the question.

“We’re not asking, ‘are you here legally or illegally?’ We’re just asking, ‘are you a citizen?’” Lacy said.

Dillingham said the Census Bureau is conducting a study to determine if and how households will answer the citizenship question if it’s on the 2020 survey.

“This is for the purpose of informing us should the question be in there, how we might deploy our resources,” he said.

Still, some Utah researchers worry that if the citizenship question is included, minorities including refugees, immigrants, and those with undocumented family members won’t answer it—or any part of the census survey.  

That could mean those groups are undercounted and underrepresented.

“It’s so important that we get an accurate count,” said Gardner Institute Director Natalie Gochnour. “Anything that takes away from someone’s motivation to fill out a form, to be included, to be part of the count, is always concerning.”

Census data is used to determine political representation and federal funding for the coming decade.

Gochnour said she was “heartened” that the Census Bureau is researching and planning for the possibility that the citizenship question is included.

But former state lawmaker Rebecca Chavez-Houck questioned the integrity of a dataset that could potentially exclude large numbers of people.

“If the citizenship question overlays a chilling effect on responsiveness and response rate, then we’ve got bad data for ten years,” Chavez-Houck said.

Nicole Nixon holds a Communication degree from the University of Utah. She has worked on and off in the KUER Newsroom since 2013, when she first joined KUER as an intern. Nicole is a Utah native. Besides public radio, she is also passionate about beautiful landscapes and breakfast burritos.
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