Census

A question on the census test asks, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" Photo courtesy of Robin Lyn Brown.

Even after a string of legal defeats led President Donald Trump to abandon his pursuit of a citizenship question on the 2020 census, nearly a quarter of a million households continued receiving questionnaires that posed the controversial query: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?"

The form, part of the 2019 census test, was designed to measure the effect a citizenship question would have on the survey's respondents. The bureau announced the test in mid-June and began mailing questionnaires shortly afterward, just two weeks before the Supreme Court halted the administration's effort, saying it had provided a "contrived" reason for wanting the information.

But had a citizenship question been included in the decennial census, the test questionnaire would have provided the bureau with last-minute information about how the public might react to it. Instead, households across the country are receiving the forms after a weekslong legal and political back-and-forth that saw Trump tangle with the courts before standing down.

"This is another example of how the president's zealous quest to add the citizenship question continues to cause confusion surrounding the upcoming census," said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House's census oversight subcommittee. "The consequences are a lingering confusion and a lingering climate of fear - especially in immigrant communities."

Bureau officials randomly assigned about 480,000 households one of two versions of the test, one with the citizenship question on it and one without. If, for example, fewer people responded to the version with the citizenship question, the bureau could have been prepared to hire more census takers to follow up with households in person.

The bureau's website says the test "will support the goal of the 2020 Census, which is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place." It will help "fine-tune" planning for the real thing. And because the test is part of preparation for the decennial census, the law requires recipients to answer all its questions.

Now that the administration has nixed the proposed question, it is unclear what the federal government will do with the data it gathers from this test. A Census Bureau spokesman did not respond to requests for comment Monday evening.

It's this uncertainty that scares Robin Lyn Brown.

The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, retiree was among those selected to receive a test form, and she said was shocked when she saw the final question, asking her whether she was a U.S. citizen.

"It just feels like a scare tactic," Brown, 68, said in an interview. "It reminds me of '1984.' Big Brother is watching, and somewhere they're putting together a database of the people who are answering this."

Brown questioned Trump's motivation for asking about citizenship status in the census, which the president's critics have said is part of an effort to systematically undercount Latinos and scare immigrant communities from participating in a survey that helps determine congressional districts and the disbursement of some federal funds.

"The first thing I thought of was that President Trump had something to do with this," said Brown, who identifies as a Democrat. "This administration is very fear-based."

Lowenthal said the bureau could have waited for the anticipated Supreme Court ruling before sending out the test forms, but officials declined to do so. The test, which will run through August, is already being conducted historically late, she said.

"The simple fact that this large test is going on six months before the start of peak census season is unprecedented," Lowenthal said.

The harried scheduling, she said, is symptomatic of the administration's approach during the 19-month citizenship question saga, a push led by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

"If the administration wanted to pursue the addition of a citizenship question above board, the commerce secretary would have made that known immediately upon taking office to give the bureau adequate time for at least some testing," Lowenthal said. "Instead, the administration had something to hide, and the secretary of commerce kept the decision to add the question hidden from public view for a year."

A puzzled public is the last thing the bureau needs in the months leading up to the 2020 survey, she said. Yet Brown - and the thousands of test recipients like her - may see that final question and pose one of their own: "When I see stuff like this I ask, 'What's the purpose?' "

This article was written by Reis Thebault, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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