The U.S. Department of Commerce’s announcement late Monday that it would include a question about citizenship status in the 2020 Census was met with swift outrage and alarm. Within hours, the state of California had launched a lawsuit against the Trump administration protesting the change, and by Tuesday morning, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman had promised to do the same, calling the Trump administration’s decision “irresponsible” and “motivated purely by politics.” New York immigrant advocacy groups took to Twitter early on Tuesday to announce the launch of a campaign to oppose the move under the hashtag #NewYorkCounts2020.
The concern is less over what the government will do with the information than what asking the question will do to the census. If immigrants are frightened off from participating, it could result in not only an inaccurate count but — because immigrants are disproportionately clustered in states like New York and California — a loss of federal funds and political representation in Democratic-heavy states.
Betsy Plum, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, says the addition of the citizen question will “absolutely” suppress the count. “Immigrant communities, whether documented or undocumented, naturalized or not, are feeling so much fear already due to the xenophobic rhetoric coming out of the White House,” she tells the Voice. “This move just puts a bull’s-eye right on the immigrant community.”
In a memo issued Monday night, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross anticipated these concerns, stating that his department was “not able to determine definitively how inclusion of a citizenship question on the decennial census will impact responsiveness,” but that “even if there is some impact on responses, the value of more complete and accurate data derived from surveying the entire population outweighs such concerns.” However, the U.S. Census Bureau’s own internal research has reported that “seemingly minor changes in question wording or sequence” can affect the outcome “in important and unexpected ways” including response rates. And the Commerce Department has decided not to pretest the citizenship question, something it has done in the past to determine the potential impact of changes to the survey.
David Daley, senior fellow for FairVote and the author of the book Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, which examines the impact of census data on voting districts, is far less equivocal. “It is already very difficult to get an accurate census,” says Daley, “and minority communities are already at risk for undercounting.” The 2010 Census was estimated to have missed 1.5 percent of Latinos, along with 2.1 percent of black residents (a total of 1.5 million people), and Daley says the 2020 survey was already set to be a particularly challenging one. “For over a year, experts have been worried that the fraught political atmosphere would make it especially hard to get an accurate count of Latino communities,” Daley says, citing a statement by four former Census Bureau executives who warned that the inclusion of the citizenship question would harm the census data.
A significant undercount could have profound political implications, Daley says. “There’s a very real fear here that the question helps skew the count in such a way that economic power and political power flows away from communities that deserve it and towards whiter, more rural, more conservative areas,” says Daley. Census data will be used to determine not only the number of state and local representatives awarded to each state, but also how an estimated $675 billion in federal funds will be allocated to states and localities over the ensuing decade.
For New York, says Plum, erasing members of immigrant communities from the census would mean both fewer dollars and congressional representatives. “The census has always been a population count, not a citizen count,” she explains, “and for every one person uncounted, the state loses $3,000 in federal funds for main government services alone. Since 1930, we’ve gone from 45 to 27 state representatives. When people are uncounted, we hemorrhage resources.”
The decision to add the citizenship question has been framed by the Department of Justice as a necessary means to collect data that would protect voters “against racial discrimination in voting” through the Voting Rights Act. (That would seem to be out of character for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long espoused a staunch anti-immigrant stance, as well as policies that have undermined the very Voting Rights Act he now claims to be defending.) On Tuesday, the White House defended the decision as “necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters,” but incorrectly claimed that the question has “been included in every census since 1965, with the exception of 2010, when it was removed.” (The question has not been a part of the decennial census since 1950.)
Trump’s original pick to head the 2020 Census, Thomas Brunell, is an outspoken partisan who testified in defense of Republican-drawn gerrymandering in numerous states. His nomination was later dropped after widespread protest by Democrats and activists alike; in the meantime, the U.S. Census Bureau is still without any top leadership, and is reported to be underprepared and behind schedule. “It’s a shame, too, because there have definitely been times when there were conscious, systemic efforts to ensure an accurate survey,” says Daley. “It’s a critical part of our democracy, and it’s meant to be nonpartisan.”
The #NewYorkCounts2020 campaign, led by a broad range of cultural and minority advocacy groups, unions, and educators from across the state, officially kicks off today with a rally at NYIC’s Manhattan office that will be attended by representatives Nydia Velázquez, Adriano Espaillat, and Grace Meng; New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson; Councilmember Carlos Menchaca; Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson; City Comptroller Scott Stringer; and representatives from the New York State Attorney General’s Social Justice Bureau. In Albany, representatives including State Senator Jose Peralta and assemblymembers Ron Kim, Marcos Crespo, and Michaelle Solages will be raising the issue at the state capitol.
“This movement is going to be all-out,” says Plum. “We’re going to resist immediately on the congressional level, and through litigation, but we’re also going to begin a robust education campaign, working with partners in the vulnerable communities to help people know their rights — that they have the right to be counted.” The issue doesn’t stop with immigrants, she adds. “This is an issue for every New Yorker, and every person in America — it’s about fair representation and resource allocation. It affects all of us.”