AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We're getting a first look at the questions all U.S. households will be asked for the 2020 census. The Census Bureau released them today in a report to Congress. And they include a citizenship question that sparked lawsuits and lots of other controversy this week. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers demographics and the census. And, Hansi, first just explain to us why this citizenship question is so controversial in general.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, this all first started back in December when the Justice Department made a last-minute request to the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census. The Justice Department asked for a citizenship question to be added to the 2020 census questionnaires. It said it needs a better count of how many citizens are eligible to vote in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
And for decades, the Voting Rights Act has relied on estimates of the citizenship population. Those are estimates based on the American Community Survey. And Secretary Wilbur Ross of the Commerce Department approved this request, said that it's really important to get a better citizenship count through the census. And that's a really big deal because citizenship has not been asked of all U.S. households for the census since 1950.
And so a number of critics, including California's state attorney general, launched a lawsuit trying to get at - trying to get this question removed essentially because they're worried that noncitizens, especially unauthorized immigrants, won't participate if this question remains on the census form because there's a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment right now. There are fears of deportation, fears of being targeted by the government by giving up that information.
CORNISH: So what exactly are the questions? How is this posed?
WANG: Well, we - the question will be, is this person a citizen of the United States? And this is a question that will be applied to every person in a household. And if you're a citizen, you can answer that you were born in the U.S. or territories like Puerto Rico or Guam, or you were born abroad of U.S. citizen parents, or you're a citizen by naturalization, including writing in the year of your naturalization.
CORNISH: Now, what could happen to this question if the lawsuits move forward?
WANG: Well, the lawsuit in California right now is in a federal court in San Francisco. And California's state attorney general is trying to get an injunction basically to prevent it, to temporarily block it from staying on the census form and ultimately have it removed before the forms and the questionnaires go out to every household in 2020. And again, the concern is that it would lower the response rate. And the argument in the complaint made by California's state attorney general is that by lowering their response rate, that will prevent the government from fulfilling its constitutional responsibility of counting every person living in the U.S. And these numbers are very important because they directly impact how we reapportion seats in Congress and draw legislative districts.
CORNISH: I understand that - oh, go ahead.
WANG: Well, I just want to mention another thing to look for beyond these legal fights is Congress. There are calls for congressional hearings. And also, members of Congress - some members of Congress say they are working on legislation to try to stop this question.
CORNISH: So there are a couple other changes to the 2020 census. Can you walk us through some of them?
WANG: Well, some of the most interesting changes - one is to the race question. For the first time, anyone who marks off white or black, there's going to be a write-in area to write in origins. And the Census Bureau gives examples such as German, Irish, African-American or Jamaican. And the Census Bureau says it's trying to respond to calls for more detailed data, that people want to give out more information to fill out their racial identity, to show their ancestry. Another interesting change is to the relationship question that asks how people in a household are related. And for the first time, among the different checkboxes there there's going to be a distinction made between opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Hansi, thank you.
WANG: Thank you, Audie.
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