Letter to Commerce Secretary on Citizenship Question (March 2018)

AHA President Mary Beth Norton has signed on to a letter to the US Secretary of Commerce regarding the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census. 

March 23, 2018

The Honorable Wilbur Ross
Secretary, United States Department of Commerce
1401 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230

Re: Protect the Scientific Integrity of the Census

Dear Secretary Ross,

Since its inception in 1787, the decennial U.S. Census has served as the scientific foundation for population-based representation in our democracy, in addition to providing a wealth of social and economic data that serves the entire country. As we approach the 2020 Census, changes in data collection are being proposed at this late stage that threaten to undermine the scientific integrity of this crucial enterprise.

Last December, the Department of Justice requested that the Census Bureau add a question regarding citizenship in an effort to identify undocumented immigrant populations. This request is ill-conceived for a number of reasons. We have more accurate methods for measuring and studying non-citizenship, for example through anonymous surveys. Imposing a citizenship question would lead to a lower participation rate and substantial undercount of certain geographic regions and demographic populations, undermining the scientific integrity of the entire project.

Preliminary focus groups and interviews with Census field representatives have already shown that greater fears of deportation, threats of a “Muslim ban,” and the termination of the DACA program are exacerbating already high non-response rates among historically undercounted populations. The potential for an increased undercount would have far reaching consequences.

In addition to the possible loss of Congressional seats for states, accurate population counts are essential for commerce. Businesses that depend on sales to individual consumers rely on regional information about the age, income, education, family structure, occupations and commuting patterns of people that determine market segmentations. Additionally, behavioral data about the use of household accessories and technology provide the best picture that we have about how Americans live. Without a high participation rate and accurate interviews, the validity of important economic data is threatened.

The accuracy of the Census is also crucial for effective public policy. Not only do we rely on accurate Census data to provide public services like schools, health care centers and highways, demographic information from the Census has played a major role in the protection of our most fundamental freedoms. The accurate classification of specific racial and ethnic populations provides the core evidence that facilitates enforcement of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

Recent calls to remove or abruptly transform these questions similarly threaten the scientific integrity of the Census. Traditionally, the Census Bureau has led a continuous effort to refine and improve questions designed to measure evolving constructs such as race. For example, the 2000 Census was the first to provide the option of self-identification in multiple categories, to better reflect the growing complexity of racial identity. Our hope is that demographers and other scientists at the Bureau will continue to adjust such questions in order to capture meaningful distinctions, but they should be free from political pressure in doing so.

The Census captures the story of who we have been, who we are, and who we are becoming. We urge the Department of Commerce uphold its responsibility to protect the scientific integrity and ensure the accuracy of the population data that results from the 2020 Census.


Steven Aftergood
Acting President, Federation of American Scientists
Andrew Cherlin
Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy & Chair, Johns Hopkins University
Sarah Christopherson
Policy Advocacy Director, National Women’s Health Network
Louis Clark
Executive Director/CEO, Government Accountability Project
Charlie Cray
Interim Political and Business Policy Director, Greenpeace USA
Julie Dowling
Associate Professor, Department of Latina/Latino Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Wendy Fields
Executive Director, Democracy Initiative
Carol Gore
President/CEO, Cook Inlet Housing Authority President, Association of Alaska Housing Authorities
Christine Harley
Director, 2020 Census Counts
Vincent L. Hutchings
President, Midwestern Political Science Association
Hassan Jaber
Executive Director, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services
David Lewis
William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science, Vanderbilt University
Meghan Maury
Policy Director, National LGBTQ Task Force
Alondra Nelson
President, Social Science Research Council
Stephen P. Nicholson
President, Western Political Science Association
Mary Beth Norton
President, American Historical Association
Andrew Rosenberg
Director, Center for Science and Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists
Alisú Schoua-Glusberg
Principal Owner, Research Support Services Inc.
Sonal Shah
Professor of Practice and founding Executive Director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, Georgetown University
Maile Taualii
Assistant Professor of Public Health, John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawaii, Manoa
Kathleen Thelen
President, American Political Science Association
Arturo Vargas
Executive Director, NALEO Educational Fund
Bethany Wiggin
Founding Director, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, University of Pennsylvania
Susan F. Wood
Executive Director, Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health
Jane Zelikova
Research Scientist, 500 Women Scientists