The Constitution requires that America’s decennial census count all persons residing in the United States, not just citizens, a clearly stated objective now at risk.
In a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs including states, cities and civil rights organizations, New York Southern District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on Jan. 15 in their favor against Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ intention directing the Census Bureau to include a question asking census respondents whether they and everyone else in their households are U.S. citizens.
At issue is not only whether the question’s inclusion is legal, given administrative timelines that were missed, but whether it would depress participation, particularly among ethnic populations, thus resulting in an inaccurate count.
Jeri Green, Senior Advisor on the 2020 Census at the National Urban League, termed Ross’ action “a thinly veiled attempt to sabotage and affect congressional and Electoral College representation by deliberately undercounting vulnerable populations and erasing them from the census count.”
Green noted that “out of roughly 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, about 620,00 are Black, according to the most recent statistics by the Migration Policy Institute. But equally at risk, however, are the 4.2 million documented Black immigrants who comprise a rising share of the Black population in the United States.”
Green participated as a panelist in a media conference call co-sponsored by the Leadership Conference Education Fund and Ethnic Media Services.
Census data is used to determine congressional reapportionment as well as the basis to accurately and fairly distribute federal money to states, counties and cities for a variety of programmatic and infrastructure needs. From schools and hospitals to social services, there is virtually no civic arena that is left unaffected by census apportioned revenue – between $700 to $800 billion annually. Data collected in 2020 will inform all such determinations for 10 years, until the next census in 2030.
However, today’s political environment is often inflamed by debates over immigration and related issues, such as a proposed expansion of a wall on America’s southern border or a recently published story in The Washington Post on non-citizen voting in North Carolina — votes sometimes cast due to ignorance of, or misunderstandings about citizenship status.
Like the National Urban League’s concerns about the dilution and disempowerment of the Black vote, and underfunding of programs and services, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) shares the same perspective relative to its Latino constituents.
Angela Manso, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs, NALEO Educational Fund, cited Census Bureau findings in Providence County, R.I., that “over 78 percent of the Latinos surveyed believe that a citizenship question would make people afraid to participate in the census.”
Manso contends Ross’ insistence to include the question is “designed to erase our presence in this country and impact our growing political force.”
A newly released Pew Research Center analysis of the 2020 electorate underscores demographic shifts that will produce a greater number of eligible ethnic minority voters, especially Latinos.
John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and a panelist on the call, argued for the elimination of the question as well. He explained that its addition would likely produce a lower turnout among Asian Americans, this country’s fastest growing ethnic cohort. A significant percentage of that growth is due to recent immigrants.
“One in four Asians in the United States are new Americans and have never participated in the Census, and a citizenship question endangers an accurate count,” Yang said.”
Panelists urged Congress to “step in” to resolve the contention over the citizenship question by introducing legislation that would bar its usage. There are concerns that even with Judge Furman’s ruling in New York, a potentially favorable outcome for opponents of the question’s inclusion in a Maryland lawsuit and yet a third trial in California that is anticipated to produce a ruling similar to New York’s, the Supreme Court could decide to hear the case on the government’s expedited appeal.
Though presumably adherence to precedents would prevail at the country’s highest court, a new law specifically excluding the citizen question could put the issue to rest and beyond the reach of Ross or others who may seek to exploit its use to accomplish a political agenda.
A House bill, the Census IDEA Act, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., that would bar the question’s use, only a few days ago saw a companion bill introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI.
Yet, while the panelists argued that a fair and accurate census should be a bi-partisan issue — as an inaccurate count reduces revenue for Americans in need everywhere, not to mention violates the principle of equality under law — attempting to enact legislation brings its own risks.
For one, not only would both the Senate and the House have to pass legislation, the President would have to sign it into law. Should he choose to veto it, it would take 67 senators to override.
Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House subcommittee charged with overseeing the census, said the most likely route to pass legislation addressing the citizenship question would be to attach it to a “must-pass bill,” like an appropriations bill.
Meanwhile, with court cases still pending and the final status of the question still unresolved, key deadlines are at risk. A critical public education awaits implementation and there may be a delay in printing the final census forms until after this summer’s target date. Green noted that Census Bureau enumerators, drawn from the communities they survey to conduct the door-to-door interviews when individuals fail to respond to mailed surveys, have yet to be hired and trained. But to hire the 500,00 people needed for the task, the Census Bureau expects to screen 2.5 million applicants.
Green also pointed out that, given the 2020 census will be the first to utilize the Internet as medium of response, the consequences of the digital divide and lack of Internet access may negatively affect response rates from already hard to count communities, typically low-income and rural, and ones where the number of children present in a household are often unreported.
Beth Lynk, Census Counts Campaign Director for The Leadership Conference Education Fund, speaking of the New York ruling, said that “each of the dozens of defects the judge found” would provide a sufficient basis to exclude the question. Especially relevant to traditionally hard to count populations, Lynk cited a quote from Judge Furman’s 277-page decision: “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people would go uncounted if the citizenship question is included.”