• Politics
  • Census

The Trump Administration Plans to Ask About Citizenship on the Census. Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal

6 minute read

Critics charge that the Trump Administration’s decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census could make government information less accurate, leading to an uneven distribution of federal money and tilting the political landscape in favor of Republicans.

While the White House characterized the move as a way to help protect minority voting rights, demographics experts, civil rights leaders and Democratic lawmakers argue that it will lead many undocumented immigrants to opt out of answering Census questions entirely, leading to a dramatic undercounting in areas where they live.

That would affect everything from how many representatives a state sends to Congress to how much money different areas receive from the federal government for such things as Medicaid and highway funds. It could even affect the Electoral College, which is based on the size of each state’s congressional delegation.

“The inaccurate count would immediately be reflected in shifts of political representation and political power,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “I have no doubt that would lead to a lot of litigation so in addition to seeing massive shifts, there will be massive uncertainty over where the seats are going to be and how the shifts will turn out.”

In an eight-page memo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that the decision to add the question came at the request of the Department of Justice, which has said that it needs the information to better enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the VRA,” a statement from the Department of Commerce reads. “Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts.”

Read More: The Head of the Census Resigned. It Could Be as Serious as James Comey

Speaking at the White House press briefing on Tuesday, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders argued that the question was backed by tradition.

“This is a question that’s been included in every census since 1965, with the exception of 2010, when it was removed,” she said. “This is something that has been part of the census for decades and something that the Department of Commerce felt strongly needed to be included again.”

That claim muddies the waters between different surveys, however. Under the Constitution, the federal government is required to take an “actual enumeration” of the “whole number of persons one each state” every 10 years, but the Census Bureau also uses samplings to ask more detailed questions of a smaller group of recipients on an annual basis.

The decennial census has not included a question about citizenship since 1950, although the more detailed sampling surveys have. That question is currently included on the American Community Survey, which offers a more detailed read on the state of the U.S. population and replaced a different long-form questionnaire in the 2010 census.

In a January letter to the Commerce Secretary, six former directors of the Census Bureau warned against adding a citizenship question to the survey so late in the Census preparation process, according to the Washington Post. A “dress rehearsal” for the census is already starting in Rhode Island.

“We strongly believe that adding an untested question on citizenship status at this late point in the decennial planning process would put the accuracy of the enumeration and success of the census in all communities at grave risk.”

Civil rights leaders say the argument that the question would help with enforcement of the Voting Rights Act is also disingenuous, since the government already collects data that can be used to address that.

“The American Community Survey has been and will continue to be suitable for civil rights and voting rights enforcement,” said Gupta, who headed up the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama.

If the change goes ahead, the effects would begin to be felt after the 2020 presidential election, which will still rely on lines drawn up after 2010. After the last census, the apportionment data was released on December 21, causing 10 states to lose seats in Congress and eight to again them.

The census also provides an essential set of data that is used by businesses and government in states and localities. University of California, Berkeley professor and demographer Kenneth W. Yachter notes that the data it offers could help a school board decide whether or not an additional elementary school needs to be built in a particular district.

“With an inaccurate census, all those forecasts become inaccurate and the whole planning and process in business and government is impaired,” says Wachter. “The census is really the vehicle on which a lot of our country’s economic life functions.”

The response to the administration’s decision was swift. Within hours of the announcement, the Attorney General of California announced he was filing a lawsuit to try to stop the question from being included. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who now leads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said the organization will also sue to stop it.

“The addition of a citizenship question to the census questionnaire is a direct attack on our representative democracy,” Holder said in a statement.

Civil and immigrant rights groups are also preparing to act in response to the Trump Administration’s decision, including by lobbying Congress to intervene. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who co-chairs the House Census Caucus, has introduced a bill that would to block the Commerce Secretary from implementing changes to the decennial census that have not been researched or tested at least three years before census day. Legislation that specifically addresses the citizenship question has also been introduced in the Senate.

Immigrant and civil rights groups see the addition as an affront to Latinos, Asian-Americans and immigrants who could be deterred from participating in the 2020 Census. Leaders said on a conference call Tuesday that there were already gearing up for difficulties in getting members of underrepresented communities to participate, given the Trump Administration’s rhetoric and strict immigration enforcement practices. This decision, they fear, could be yet another hindrance.

“Even if the question is removed, there will be barriers we will have to get through,” said John C. Yang, the president and executive director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com