The Complicated History Of The U.S. Census Asking About Citizenship
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The Justice Department point person on civil rights heads to Capitol Hill tomorrow for what may be a tough hearing. It is about the 2020 census. The department has requested that the census form include a question about U.S. citizenship. The federal government has used the census to ask people about their citizenship before. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains the surprising history.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: This is a story with lots of stops and starts, so we'll need a tour guide.
MARGO ANDERSON: My name is Margo Anderson.
WANG: She's a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
ANDERSON: Right. And I'm the author of "The American Census: A Social History."
WANG: And she traces the first time all U.S. households were asked about citizenship all the way back to the census of 1820.
Was this still done on horseback at that time?
ANDERSON: Oh, certainly (laughter) - or walking.
WANG: That was the country's fourth headcount. And census takers asked...
ANDERSON: Are there any foreigners not naturalized in your household? And if so, how many?
WANG: Anderson says she's not sure why these questions were included.
ANDERSON: I haven't found yet any evidence of the use of that information in terms of policies, which I think is why it simply disappeared.
WANG: By 1840, the government stops asking about foreigners who are not citizens. Fifty years pass before the topic comes up again in 1890. By this point, the federal government had been asking for decades about where people were born and where their parents were born. Anderson explains why.
ANDERSON: Well, we have lots of immigrants in the country right now. How are they doing?
WANG: So for the 1890 census, people born outside the U.S. were asked how long they've been in the country and whether they've become citizens. And census takers kept asking similar questions well into the 20th century.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE SUBURBS")
WANG: We're going to skip ahead to the years just before the 1960 headcount.
ANDERSON: The census officials and Congress begin to sort of say do we really still need to ask this?
WANG: The number of immigrants in the U.S. had been dropping. The list of census questions was long. And as this 1957 short film by Redbook magazine puts it...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE SUBURBS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's a happy go-spending world reflected in the windows of the suburban shopping centers where they go to buy.
WANG: Business leaders and researchers pushed the government to ask about a different set of topics.
ANDERSON: Particularly a lot of questions about consumer goods. Do people have televisions and washing machines?
WANG: This is what squeezes out the citizenship question.
WANG: In 1970, the government starts asking about citizenship on a small survey for a sample of households. Fast-forward to today. The Trump administration has approved a new citizenship question for all households in 2020. The Justice Department says it needs data from it to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. But Anderson says this citizenship question may confuse a lot of people.
ANDERSON: It's like, why are you asking me this? Of course I'm a citizen. I was born here.
WANG: Critics say those born outside the U.S. may stay away from the census because of the question. More than two dozen states and cities are suing to remove it. Anderson sees this debate as part of the complicated census history of asking about citizenship. It's been a series of twists and turns over 200 years. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Washington.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly imply the U.S. census did not ask about citizenship status for the national head counts between 1840 and 1890. In fact, questions for the 1870 census included, "Is this person a male citizen of the United States of 21 years or upwards?"]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Correction April 25, 2019
In this story, we incorrectly imply the U.S. census did not ask about citizenship status for the national head counts between 1840 and 1890. In fact, questions for the 1870 census included, "Is this person a male citizen of the United States of 21 years or upwards?"