INDIANAPOLIS — The controversial inclusion of a question about citizenship in the 2020 Census could be a barrier to some ethnic groups, most noticeably with Spanish participants followed by those of Middle East-North African descent.

But the biggest challenges in conducting the decennial census will be overcoming apathy and making Americans understand that the survey is tied to community funding, according to a report issued this week by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which administers the census.

The “2020 Census Barriers, Attitudes, and Motivators Study Survey Report” found the primary barriers to census participation were a lack of knowledge about its purpose, citizen apathy and lack of political efficacy, confidentiality concerns, and fear of repercussions such as deportation of non-citizens.

Some groups such as rural residents, African-Americans and those of Middle East-North African (MENA) descent felt powerless in participating in the census, the study found.

Researchers reported, “Many focus group participants did not believe it mattered if they were personally counted in the census, let alone their own families.

“Rural, black or African-American, and younger male MENA participants in particular expressed anger and frustration when discussing the issues of being powerless and abandoned by the government.”

The results were compiled from 42 focus groups in 14 cities in the U.S., including Puerto Rico. Researchers were tasked with finding Americans at risk for not being adequately represented in the census or those expected to have low response rates.

On March 26, 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross directed the Census Bureau to use the 2020 Census to ask every resident about citizenship status. A citizenship question had been asked in most census surveys since 1850, and placed on the long form in 1950. It was omitted in 2010 as households received the short form.

After the question was announced, 17 states, including California and New York, filed suit seeking its removal. On Jan. 15, a judge for the U.S. Southern District of New York enjoined the Secretary of Commerce from adding the question to the 2020 Census.

The U.S. Supreme Court said it would not hear an appeal, although an emergency request could still be filed.

In support of keeping the question, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill joined in a multi-state legal brief in the federal lawsuit.

In a statement last year, Hill said, “The federal government is well within its rightful authority to ask census respondents whether they are citizens. In fact, a negative response does not necessarily mean that the respondent is here illegally. Those with work or student visas are not U.S. citizens but are here lawfully.”

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