The Census Bureau said Friday that it will move forward with plans to test a citizenship question in a nationwide survey this summer, while federal courts weigh the legality of the question.
"This test is not to determine whether or not we're including the citizenship question on the 2020 census," Victoria Velkoff, an associate director in the Census Bureau, said at a public meeting outlining 2020 census preparations.
Instead, it is designed to help the agency determine how to get the largest number of responses and "inform staffing, training, and planning decisions," she said.
While a citizenship question was once included in the main census questionnaire, in recent decades it has been part of a smaller and more detailed study, the annual American Community Survey.
"We have limited empirical evidence about the impact the question might have in the decennial environment," Velkoff said.
Census Bureau data released in November showed the question "may be a major barrier," and cited concerns over such misconceptions as that the census is used "is to find undocumented immigrants."
In June, 480,000 households will receive one of two nearly identical versions of the census form: one with the citizenship question and one without.
That sample size will allow the bureau to "measure a 0.5 percentage point difference in self-response rates at the national level," Velkoff said.
The target areas include those "with high proportions of noncitizens and historically low self-response," she said.
Preliminary results are expected to be publicly released in October.
Around the same time, the legal battle over including the citizenship question on the 2020 census could be coming to a head.
Solicitor General Noel Francisco recently asked the Supreme Court to expedite a review of the issue, bypassing a lower appeals court, "because the government must finalize the decennial census questionnaire for printing by the end of June 2019."
A federal judge in New York ruled last month that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' decision to add the question was "unlawful." Similar cases have recently been argued in California and Maryland courtrooms.
Officials also said Friday that work had continued "uninterrupted" during the recent partial government shutdown, which affected the Commerce Department and parts of the Census Bureau that were not working on the 2020 survey or projects funded by other government agencies.
"Every office that is doing work on the 2020 census was able to continue that work and, additionally, all of our contractors were able to continue their critical work on the census," Albert Fontenot, associate director of the 2020 census.
"As a result there was no negative change in schedule, cost or scale of the 2020 census operations. We continue to operate on our critical path."