The Long History of the U.S. Government Asking Americans Whether They Are Citizens

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When Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordered the Census Bureau to attach a question on citizenship to the 2020 census, the first argument he used to back up his decision was also the simplest: We’ve always asked. The question has been “a longstanding historical practice,” he wrote, “asked in some form or another for nearly 200 years.”

But the lineage of the citizenship question is more complicated than that. And all along, it has been tied up with bitter partisan fights over the racial makeup of the country and the distribution of political power.

President Trump threw in the towel Thursday on his legal fight to add a citizenship question to the census, but not on his quest to distinguish citizens from noncitizens in the nation’s population figures, which he said would be done using various databases the government already has. “We’ll leave no stone unturned,” he said.

Invoking the federal government’s long history of inquiring about citizenship, Mr. Trump acknowledged on Thursday what critics have said from the beginning of the dispute, that one of his administration’s aims was to allow the exclusion of noncitizens from the political representation equation.

“Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter-eligible population,” he said.

That is not a new idea. Concerns about citizens and noncitizens have been at the center of changes to the census and battles over its results since its early days.

The first attempt at a question about citizenship — a count of the number of foreigners living in each household in 1820 — was prompted by lingering suspicions from the War of 1812.

“The fact that we had just fought a war with Britain prompted it — ‘Do we have dangerous foreigners in the country?’” said Margo J. Anderson, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and author of “The American Census: A Social History.” “And after 1830, it was clear that they weren’t, and that nobody cared. So the question goes off the form.”

When a citizenship question returned 40 years later, in the 1870 census, it was part of a baldly political scheme to address one consequence of the Civil War: Newly freed slaves had so expanded the population of the former Confederate states that the South was expected to gain 15 House seats in the reapportionment of 1871.

The prospect that the defeated Southern states might actually be able to control both the House of Representatives and the Electoral College so alarmed Republicans that they included a clause in the new 14th Amendment to prevent it. Because Southern states were denying voting rights to freed slaves, the clause reduced the population base used to allot House seats, based on how many adult male citizens in a state had been denied the right to vote.

Implementing that clause required adding a question about the citizenship status of adult males to the 1870 census, as well as a question about whether those citizens had been denied voting rights. But by the time the census took place, the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights to African-Americans, made the provision moot — and as the census soon showed, a population surge in the American West offset the South’s gains anyway.

The next time citizenship was on the form, in a question about naturalization in the 1890 census, it came with the rise of a virulent campaign against immigrants. Curiously, one of the campaign’s principal leaders was the superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 censuses, Gen. Francis Amasa Walker.

General Walker, who was also president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became increasingly obsessed with what he saw as the pollution of the American genetic strain by inferior immigrants.

Seeking to pin down the nation’s lineage, he adjusted the 1880 census to inquire about not only the respondents’ birthplaces, but their parents’ as well. Later, he backed an 1882 law that banned Chinese immigrant labor, and he called immigrants from Italy, Hungary, Austria and Russa “beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in our struggle for existence,” according to the book “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America,” by Mae M. Ngai.

When the 1890 census showed that immigrants had accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s population growth in the previous decade, Genera Walker assailed the head count as inaccurate, kicking off a Democratic-led assault on the census that killed legislation to set up a permanent census office.

The anti-immigrant furor had yet to subside by 1920, when census-takers asked about respondents’ birthplaces, immigration history and naturalization status, and also their parents’ birthplaces and mother tongues.

There was a subtext to that furor: The immigrants were settling in major cities, swelling their populations and increasing their political power. And the cities, then as now, were Democratic bastions in a nation that was largely under Republican control.

When the 1920 census results documented a huge population shift to the cities, Republicans faced the loss of their dominance after the new population figures were used to reapportion the House of Representatives.

In response, Congress ignored its constitutional duty to reapportion the House for nearly a decade, and even considered amending the Constitution to exclude noncitizens from the population base used to apportion House seats. Only in 1929 was legislation passed that allowed reapportionment, and that legislation included concessions to preserved some of the rural areas’ hold on political power.

The anti-immigrant crusade would climax with a law in 1924 that slashed immigration quotas and favored immigrants from the northern European countries that had settled the nation. But fears about sabotage by foreigners in the country surfaced after World War II began in 1941.

With the Census Bureau’s cooperation, the government tapped into confidential data on respondents of Japanese ancestry to locate and imprison in so-called internment camps more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans who were regarded as security risks. Two-thirds of them were American citizens.

While providing that data was legal at the time, the disclosures are seen now as one of the census’s darkest moments, and the memory of them helped lead to federal laws that tightened security over census data and made the release of personal information a criminal violation.

Questions about citizenship were finally dropped from the main census questionnaire after the 1950 head count. The reason was straightforward: The bureau shortened its questionnaire to essential information to improve the response rate and accuracy.

There were questions even before then about whether the citizenship question was drawing truthful responses. Connecticut census officials were concerned about a “sore spot” on the census questionnaire, The Hartford Daily Courant reported in April 1940. “Hartford aliens are more reluctant to admit their lack of citizenship than to disclose any other fact concerning themselves,” the paper wrote, saying it was a matter of “great interest and significance.”

When the question was reintroduced in 1970, it was not on the standard form used for most of the population. Instead, it was included on a “long form” sent only to a small fraction of households, asking a great many additional questions about occupation, educational attainment, housing and the like.

In 1980, as a mainly mail-in census replaced reliance on door-to-door census-takers, new problems arose. Asked whether they were naturalized citizens, 22 percent of native-born Americans mistakenly thought the term “naturalized” applied to them and answered yes.

“The Census Bureau said, ‘Oh my God, we need to fix this,’” Ms. Anderson said, “so they did a whole bunch of testing in the mid-’80s” to create a less confusing question.

The wording they settled on — “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” — went on the long form, and later onto the American Community Survey, a rolling survey that replaced the once-a-decade long form after the 2000 census.

The citizenship question is still in use on that survey today — and its wording was at the center of the legal battle that has been raging over the census.

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