Citing potential citizenship question, Austin’s demographer predicts 2020 census effort to be 'most daunting' yet

For city demographer Ryan Robinson, who began working with the city just as the 1990 census project was getting underway, the 2020 census—his fourth with the city—presents “one of the most daunting decennial efforts in modern history.”

Speaking to a packed Austin City Hall audience June 14, Robinson outlined predictions of the 2020 census’s process and results as part of the Imagine Austin speaker series. But he focused much of his presentation on his anxiety toward how the existing political climate would impact the accuracy of the count.

Barring a Supreme Court overruling, the census will, for the first time, ask participants whether they are a legal citizen. Robinson provided the exact text of the question and available answers:

Is this person a citizen of the United States?

  • Yes, born in the United States

  • Yes, born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Northern Marianas

  • Yes, born abroad of U.S. citizen parent or parents

  • Yes, U.S. citizen by naturalization — Print year of naturalization

  • No, not a U.S. citizen

“This isn’t a legal status question, it’s a binary—are you a citizen, or are you not?” said Robinson, who expects a Supreme Court ruling by the end of the month. “This question is going to be pretty intimidating.”

Robinson said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been very aggressive and “created an atmosphere of violence and fear unlike anything we’ve seen.” He said he had real worry that anyone who says they are not a citizen, or skips the question, could receive a visit from ICE.

“Do I think ICE might be up to no good? Absolutely, yes, and I’m professionally worried about that,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he was worried fear around this question could lead to a significant undercount in the Asian and Hispanic populations.

The citizenship question is only one piece of the upcoming census’s daunting nature, Robinson said. Next year’s effort will also receive less federal funding than years past, will be conducted by undertrained census field workers and will introduce “new and untested” phone and internet response methods.

Add this to dealing with the populations who traditionally prove to be averse to completing the census: those who are difficult to locate, interview or contact, and those who distrust the government. Robinson included the growing homeless population in Austin, which he said the U.S. Census Bureau expects to all be counted in a single night.

Although Robinson reminded everyone it is part of their civic duty to fill out the census, he said each year there is difficulty to get everyone to participate. He predicted 400,000 people live in the areas of the Austin metro area where less than 70% of the population completed the 2010 census.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Su


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