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What changes to the 2020 U.S. census could mean for immigrants

A map of adults and children counted in the 2010 census. Photo by flickr user Eric Fischer licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Alhambra , CA United States

The U.S. census is not a particularly sensational battleground for the rights of underrepresented communities. Yet advocates say that the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the 2020 census can harm those groups’ access to public resources and political representation.

In late March, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross put out a memo announcing that the 2020 census would include a question asking for a respondent’s citizenship status. Ross said that the inclusion of this question was necessary to protect disenfranchised groups under the Voting Rights Act. His memo prompted outcry that the question would discourage immigrants, whether undocumented or not, from participating in the census, for fear of opening themselves up to deportation.

The U.S. census is conducted every 10 years and provides important demographic data about every single person living in the United States. Ensuring an accurate count is essential for determining the number of representatives a state gets in Congress, as well as deciding how federal funding is allocated to underrepresented groups.

The states of California and New York filed lawsuits to block the addition of this question. On Tuesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing about this development. The committee invited John Gore, the head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, to testify. Gore pushed for the citizenship question’s inclusion. He didn’t show up.

In the meantime, census experts and various advocacy groups are speaking out about the effect that this question would have on certain racial groups’ participation, such as Latinos and Asian Americans. “It is important to recognize that 90 percent of Asian Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants,” said John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Washington D.C, in a press call organized by Ethnic Media Services in early April. “For this reason, the citizenship question potentially will depress response rates in our community.”

Other advocates described seeing a fear of answering questions about citizenship during census field tests, including in Providence County, Rhode Island, where the U.S. Census Bureau is conducting its testing.

“When questions that approach the citizenship question were asked, people refused to answer out of fear,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. “And they were scared of how the information would be used and the perceived lack of confidentiality.”

Vargas recounted urging Ross not to include a question about citizenship on the census. “Reading his memorandum showed that he did not listen to the experts,” he said. “This is why six prior directors of the census bureau, two secretaries of commerce, from Republican and Democratic administrations, all of them, have opposed the decision by Secretary Ross and are asking him to reconsider.”

Advocates also expressed concern that there wasn’t enough time to test the citizenship question, since its addition has been at the last-minute. “Now let’s be clear about this, it’s the responsibility of the Commerce Department to ensure that all questions are properly tested and lead to accurate data,” said Yang. “And this has not been done here.”

This fits into the larger view that the U.S. Census Bureau is being underfunded, with Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, saying that the Trump administration had requested around $3.8 billion in funding for the 2019 fiscal year. This resulted in an estimated shortage of $933.5 million to keep the 2020 census on track, until Congress freed up more spending to make up for this shortfall.

This could impact the resources the Census Bureau has to test new questions and procedures, including hiring enough census workers and partner organizations to make sure that the United States’ population of more than 300 million people are all counted.

“The consequences of this underfunding has caused the census to delay, re-scope and eliminate critical tests, research and operations that impacts the bureau’s ability to conduct an accurate count,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. He added that the African American community had been consistently undercounted in past censuses and expressed fears that the same would happen in 2020.

All speakers on the press call pledged to fight these recent developments. In the meantime, they emphasized how important it is that people still participate in the census, so that their communities are accurately represented.

“The administration does not want Latinos to be counted,” said Vargas about the addition of the citizenship question. “And what we at NALEO Educational Fund are going to be doing is trying to determine how do we explain that to the Latino community, so that our community understands that the best way to fight back, the best way to have a voice in public policy discourse, is to be counted.”

Updated on Friday, May 11, 2o18 at 2:26 p.m.

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