The year: 2092. Genealogists in the United States eagerly anticipate release of the 2020 census data. It’s been 50 years since citizenship status for all U.S. residents was available. DNA charts in hand, genealogists peruse the census, looking for names of ancestors who immigrated to the United States. Information provided by those ancestors will confirm genetic ancestry results. Hopefully, the ancestor reported a more specific locale than “northern Europe”.
Scenario #1: In 2020, not all households in the U.S. received a census survey with citizenship and immigration questions. A few lucky genealogists discover that their ancestors were among the one in six households who received and filled out the ‘long form’. Although the census did not ask about legal status, opponents of adding a question about citizenship had successfully argued their points.
Scenario #2: In 2020, all households in the U.S. received a census survey with a question about citizenship. A sample of households received a longer survey that included questions about nativity (place of birth) of each person and their parents. The census did not ask about legal status. Response rates dropped slightly from previous years.
How would your genealogy research be affected if your ancestors had not been asked about immigration and citizenship status on the U.S. Census? Many of us learn about our ancestral roots from the answers to those questions. I wonder what my ancestors thought about the census questions related to their place of birth and citizenship status: “Where were you born? “ “Where was your father born?” “Where was your mother born?” “Are you a citizen of the U.S.?” Did they answer truthfully? One of this week’s news items is a proposed addition to the 2020 United States census about citizenship. The heated debate led me to search for the facts.
- When did a citizenship question first appear on the U.S. census?
- How has the citizenship question changed?
- What is the exact wording of the proposed question?
- For a non-citizen immigrant, is a question proposed that will ask about their legal status in the United States?
- How is the proposed 2020 change different from earlier censuses?
Questions about citizenship, naturalization, and immigration have appeared on the U.S. Census for decades. The information, in some form, has been requested since 1850. Look at blank census forms again. Column headings range from “place of birth of this person” (1880) to “naturalization status or citizen of what country” (1900 to 1940).
Tables 1 and 2 summarize the information related to nativity (birth) and citizenship from 1850 through 2000.
Table 1. Information requested on U.S. Census by year, 1850 – 1940 (Source: National Archives & Records Administration, Charts & Forms)
Table 2. Information requested on U.S. Census by year, 1950– 2000 (Source: U.S. Census, Through the Decades, Index of Questions)
Beginning in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau sampled the population through the American Community Survey.  Citizenship questions from 2010 to 2018 were:
Reports of the exact question format for 2020 vary from “Are you a citizen of the U.S?” to “Are you a legal citizen of the U.S.?” Wording of the question will be “what is already used in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which asks respondents to check one of five categories to describe their citizenship status.”  Since 1970, all households received a short form questionnaire and only a sample of households, about 1 in 6, received a longer form.  The questions about citizenship were only on the longer form.
Addendum: 18 April 2018
As I reviewed census records for immigrant ancestors, I saw abbreviations related to the citizenship status of foreign-born persons. From the 1930 “Instructions to Enumerators”:
- Na = “naturalized”
- Pa = “papers”; person has taken out papers to begin the naturalization process.
- Al = “alien”; person is not naturalized and has not taken out “first papers”.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census. Instructions to Enumerators, Population and Agriculture. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. : 1930), p. 31, items 180 – 184. (https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/1930instruction.pdf : accessed 17 April 2018).
To summarize, here are the questions posed at the beginning of this post, with answers:
- After 1850, when did a specific citizenship question first appear on the U.S. census? ANSWER: 1900.
- How has the citizenship question changed? ANSWER: 1900 -1930; 1970-2000: when did person come to the U.S.? Naturalization status asked from 1900 -1930 and 1950-1980. 1940: Citizenship of the foreign born. 1990 – 2000: Is person a U.S. Citizen? American Community Survey, begun in 2010, surveys a sample of the population annually. Questions include: Where was person born? Is person a citizen of the United States? If citizen by naturalization, year of naturalization. When did person come to live in the United States?
- What is the exact wording of the proposed question? ANSWER: Is this person a citizen of the United States?
- For a non-citizen immigrant, is a question proposed that will ask about their legal status in the United States? ANSWER: No. (Disclaimer: If you find such a question, contact me and I will change this answer. Please include your source and the actual wording of the question. Thanks.)
- How is the proposed 2020 change different from earlier censuses? ANSWER: The question about citizenship will be on the short form, which is sent to every household.
FINAL COMMENT: Information about an individual’s citizenship has not been available for every person in the U.S. since 1970. Beginning in 2020, will this change? What will genealogists in the future think about these changes? Will either of the presented scenarios ( or another scenario) occur?
If you are interested in the debate, here is a sample of articles, both pro and con: (alphabetically by author’s last name):
Steve Camarota, March 28, 2018. “Would a Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census Reduce Response Rates?” Part 2. Center for Immigration Studies. 28 March 2018 ( https://cis.org/Camarota/Would-Citizenship-Question-2020-Census-Reduce-Response-Rates-Part-2 : accessed 31 March 2018)
Caroline McAtee Cerbin, “Citizenship question to be put back on 2020 Census for first time in 70 years,” USA Today, On Politics E-Newsletter, 26 March 2018 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2018/03/26/citizenship-question-put-back-2020-census/461044002/ : accessed 30 March 2018).
Arloc Sherman, “Citizenship question jeopardizes census accuracy, undermines funding process”, The Census Project, 29 March 2018 (https://thecensusproject.org/blog : accessed 31 March 2018).
Brian Tashman, “Trump Is Undermining the 2020 Census. Marginalized Communities Will Bear the Brunt,” https://www.aclu.org/blog/immigrants-rights/trump-undermining-2020-census-marginalized-communities-will-bear-brunt Accessed 31 March 2018 Posted 5 Jan 2018
Hansi Lo Wang & Andrea De Leon, “The 2020 Census Questions Every U.S. Household will be Asked, Annotated,” National Public Radio, 29 March 2018 (https://www.npr.org/2018/03/29/598018163/census-bureau-releases-2020-census-questions-including-1-on-citizenship : accessed 31 March 2018).
After multiple drafts and a lot of self-debate, I decided to go ahead and post this. I am spoiled by the amount of information available on census records. I am aware of controversies regarding the census, such as the reporting of one’s race. Opinions vary widely about the issue of the proposed 2020 census question. I have tried to present those varied opinions. Some, not all, households were asked the question since 1970 and some of those refused to answer. Perhaps I am being too simplistic and only seeing through the lens of genealogy. Given current concerns about identity theft, will information about individuals from the 1950 and later censuses still be made public 72 years after the census? The American Community Survey reports aggregate data now. Will a genealogist in 2082 be able to see individual data gathered in 2010? This post may generate some negative comments.
What I learned: A citizenship question has not been routinely asked since 1970. Some opponents of the proposed question believe that a question about citizenship also makes an inference about an immigrant’s legal status. Some proponents of the proposed question downplay the legal status issue. Whether the question will actually impact response rates in 2020 or not is still a matter of opinion. I learned about the American Community Survey.
What helped: access to many online sources. Having copies of the NARA census forms in print and online versions. Creating multiple versions of this post.
What didn’t help: Multitude of negative opinions and fewer positive opinions about the proposed change. My own uncertainty about posting this.
For future: No suggestions at this time. Maybe a post about one of my immigrant ancestors and how the census information guided me to discover more?
 National Archives & Records Administration. Research our Records. Resources for Genealogists. Charts and Forms. https://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/charts-forms : accessed 31 March 2018. Available forms include genealogy charts; federal census forms; nonpopulation census forms, 1880 census supplemental forms: defective, dependent, and delinquent classes; immigration forms; military forms.
 U.S. Bureau of the Census. “American Community Survey”. (https://www.census.gov/history/www/programs/demographic/american_community_survey.html : accessed 31 March 2018).
 U.S. Bureau of the Census. “American Community Survey, Questionnaire, 2010,” (https://www.2.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/methodology/questionnaires/2010/quest10.pdf : accessed 31 March 2018.
 U.S. Bureau of the Census. “American Community Survey, Questionnaire, 2018,” https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/methodology/questionnaires/2018/quest18.pdf : accessed 31 March 2018)
 D’Vera Cohn. “What to know about the citizenship question the Census Bureau is planning to ask in 2020,” Pew Research Center, 30 March 2018 (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/30/what-to-know-about-the-citizenship-question-the-census-bureau-is-planning-to-ask-in-2020/ : accessed 2 April 2018, paragraph 4.
 Tamara Keith, “FACT CHECK: Has citizenship been a standard census question?” National Public Radio, 27 March 2018 (https://www.npr.org/2018/03/27/597436512/fact-check-has-citizenship-been-a-standard-census-question : accessed 3 April 2018).
© Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots blog, 2018.