CensusAnalysis: Adding a citizenship question to the census could screw over Texas

By Ross Ramsey

Published 29 March 2018

A census question on citizenship could undercount populations in states with large numbers of poor and/or Hispanic residents — states like Texas. And an undercount would cut into the state’s representation, and its federal services.

Counting is one thing. Culling is something else entirely.

As the federal government prepares for its once-every-decade count of the U.S. population, it has decided to ask residents whether they are U.S. citizens or not. At a time when immigration and sanctuary cities top Republican lists of political concerns, that question has less to do with counting and more to do with culling.

Including that question could be a strong disincentive for some respondents to even talk to a census worker, if they feel that answering in the negative — “Not a U.S. citizen” — might expose them to legal consequences. Being counted is one thing. Volunteering for immigration scrutiny is another.

It’s not an academic exercise, either — or someone else’s problem.

In a terrific preview of the 2020 census by the Tribune’s Alexa Ura and Chris Essig, the ties between the citizenship question and the Texas count were made explicit: “Almost 5 million immigrants live in the state, and it’s estimated that about two-thirds are noncitizens — legal permanent residents, immigrants with another form of legal status or undocumented immigrants. Additionally, more than 1 million Texans who are U.S. citizens live with at least one family member who is undocumented.”

Hispanics and poor people are already harder to count — whether there’s a citizenship question in place or not. Census tracts with lower-than-average response rates tend to have higher Hispanic and/or poor populations. Opponents to including a question on citizenship contend it will further increase chances of an undercount — particularly in areas with higher numbers of poor and Hispanic Texas residents.

The federal government could save itself billions of dollars in population-related programs and services by undercounting the state’s population, and critics of the decision to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census say a Texas undercount will be one of the results. Whether that’s a conflict of interest or a clever economic strategy is up to each voter.

An undercount could cost the fast-growing state some representation in Congress. It would also short-sheet Texas in funding for various federal programs, from transportation to health care, that are ladled out according to population.