Adding Citizenship Question to the Census: What it Means for Genealogy

By Ashlee Peck Premium
census records genealogy citizenship question
MAR 28 1970, MAR 29 1970; Donald P. MacDonald, 740 Fillmore St., checks census form; His wife, Diane, and children Theresa, 9, and Patrick, 3, take a peek, too.; (Photo By Bill Wunsch/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

On March 26, 2018, the state of California sued the Trump administration, arguing that the decision to add a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census violates the U.S. Constitution. The announcement to do so was made late Monday night by the state’s Attorney General, not long after the Commerce Department announced the upcoming change.

There are a variety of reasons that many people are against the addition of a citizenship question. It dictates how state congressional districts are drawn, and determines the distribution of federal dollars. Currently, undocumented immigrants are counted in state’s population totals. The new question may be used to remove undocumented immigrants from the counts, or could frighten some from taking the Census altogether. This could lead to a massive shift in political power and government spending.

In addition to these concerns, there are a several ways that this new question might impact future genealogy research:

Missing records for future genealogists

For many genealogists, researching census records is one of the first steps in searching for or confirming information about an ancestor. Researchers can discover names, ages, relationships of everyone in a household, their language spoken, and the birthplace of their ancestor’s parents. It’s a jackpot for genealogists.

In a time of political turmoil, requiring everyone to share whether or not they are a citizen could lower response rates, which would eliminate this information for future genealogists. Not only might this cause those who are not currently citizens to not fill out the 2020 Census, thus leaving a gap in one of genealogy’s go-to records, but it also may prevent citizens who share a home with non-citizens from taking part in the census as well.

Census questions as clues to the past

Census records a rich resource when looking for clues about a specific ancestor, but they also can tell us a lot about the political and social climate at the time that the census was taken. For example, 1790-1840 the U.S. Census asked respondents to state whether they were free white males, free white females, other free persons, or slaves. This sort of question makes a very clear impression of what was going on in the country during this time period. If undocumented immigrants do not fill out the Census, genealogists will not have as accurate a picture of the social and political climate during the census years.

How the question will be used

This isn’t the first time that a citizenship question has been included on the Census. The question might not be new, but how the information is used might be.

The last time a U.S. Census form going to all household contained a question about U.S. citizenship was in 1950. This version asked where each person was born, and in a follow-up question asked, “If foreign born — Is he naturalized?” Since then, the citizenship question has been used on some of the long form versions of the Census, but this version is not sent to the majority of households. The question might not be new, but how the information is used might be. It is unclear at this point is what the information gathered from this question will be used for.

Something to ponder

Immigration questions in historical censuses are important clues – as the effects of the citizenship question play out, modern genealogists should consider how this will affect the information available to our descendants.


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