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By Henrietta J. Burroughs                Follow East Palo Alto Today on
East Palo Alto Today                        Facebook    Twitter         Blog              
January 29, 2019                          EPA Today Facebook page Follow epatoday on Twitter EPA Today Blog Icon


Graphic of the Citizenship Question 2020 Census presentation to council members
A screenshot of the Citizenship Question     Presenters Aparna Ramakrishnan
                                                                                and Megan Gosh

Is this person a citizen of the United States? It’s a simple enough question. But, it’s a controversial question that the Trump administration would like to put in the 2020 Census.

As simple a question as it is, its very existence is being questioned. The fact that the U.S. Justice Department wants to add the Citizenship Question to the 2020 Census has ignited passions and fears throughout the country and lawsuits in several of the nation’s courts.

Considering that the data collected in any U.S. Census determines how congressional seats are allotted, how billions of federal dollars are spent and how many other state and national resources are allocated, the fear held by many is that the census questionnaire will go unanswered by millions of immigrants who might feel, rightly or wrongly, that the information they give could be held against them.

The very proposal for the Citizenship Question formally originated with a letter from the Justice Department’s general counsel, Arthur E Gary, who wrote:

"This data is critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting. To fully enforce those requirements, the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected. As demonstrated below, the decennial census questionnaire is the most appropriate vehicle for collecting that data, and reinstating a question on citizenship will best enable the Department to protect all American citizens' voting rights under Section 2."

Gary went on to write:

“[t]he right to vote is one of the badges of citizenship” and that “[t]he dignity and very concept of citizenship are diluted if noncitizens are allowed to vote.” Barnett, 141 F.3d at 704. Thus, it would be the wrong result for a legislature or a court to draw a singlemember district in which a numerical racial minority group in a jurisdiction was a majority of the total voting-age population in that district but “continued to be defeated at the polls” because it was not a majority of the citizen voting-age population. Campos, 113 F.3d at 548."

It seems the ostensible purpose of the question is to distinguish citizens from noncitizensand to protect the rights of citizens from noncitizens, who might cast votes that could influence an election outcome. In short, the question, according to Gary, is meant to protect the civil rights of U.S. citizens. See the entire letter at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4340651-Text-of-Dec-2017-DOJ-letter-to-Census.html

In spite of Gary’s arguments and the fact that the Citizenship Question appeared before 1950 on previous census questionnaires, the prospect of having the question on the 2020 Census has caused serious concerns throughout the U.S.

Reps. Jose Serrano and Grace Meng, both Democrats from New York, wrote a “counter” letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who is overseeing the 2020 Census, asking for the rejection of Gary’s request. In their letter, they said, “Adopting this question on citizenship and legal status will negatively affect response rates, jeopardize the accuracy of the collected surveys, and deter many people from participating….” 

But citizen or not, the census is supposed to count everyone living in the U.S. Hearing the arguments on both sides, Secretary Ross decided to include the Citizenship Question in the 2020 Census questionnaire.

Critics of the decision filed suit. In April 2018, a coalition of 17 states, 6 cities and Washington, D.C filed a lawsuit against the Citizenship Question’s inclusion in the census. The lawsuit was led by New York State’s attorney general. Since its filing, the lawsuit was joined by four additional states, four counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The City and County of San Francisco are included in the lawsuit.

See the list of cities and states in the legal complaint that was filed. The City of San Jose took separate legal action with two other states to block the citizenship question.

Current statistics show that California (10,653 million), Texas (4,854 million) and New York 4.540 million) lead the nation with the largest immigrant population and have the most to lose if any undercounting of their immigrant populations occur.

Highlighting this danger, the Dallas Morning News ran an editorial on January 27, 2019 with the headline: A citizenship question on the next census could cost Texas dearly. The editorial acknowledges the financial impact an undercount would have on the state.

The ranking of U.S. states with regard to their immigrant population can be seen at (https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/immigrant-population-state-1990-present

Thus far, the Justice Department has had several major setbacks in its attempt to include the Citizenship Question.

After a two-week trial, which started at the beginning of this year, the U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman ruled against the Justice Department, denying the Trump Administration the power to include the Citizenship Question on the 2020 Census. The ruling came down on January 15, 2019.

In the Supreme Court case – the critics of the question included the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the Attorney General of the State of New York

Several days later the Justice Department appealed the district court's ruling to the U.S Supreme Court. On January 17, 2019, the Supreme Court, which was scheduled to hear the case on February 19, 2019 ruled to remove from its calendar the request to have Ross testify before the court about the reasons for having the Citizenship Question included in the census.

But, all is not over. As of now, the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to review its decision and rule on the Citizenship Question.

However, time is running out. The deadline to print the 2020 Census is July 2019.

No one is resting on his or her laurels. From the national to the local level, organizations and agencies are weighing in on the Citizenship Question and mobilizing.

At its January 15, 2019 meeting, the East Palo Alto City Council heard a special presentation from the San Mateo County Office of Community Affairs called Ensuring a Complete and Accurate Count for Census 2020. The report was made by Megan Gosh and her associate, Aparna Ramakrishnan, both from the San Mateo County City Manager’s Office of Community Affairs.

In the report, Gosh said that immigrants, people of color, households with low income, households with limited English proficiency, children under 5 years old, the homeless and the housing unstable were groups that have been historically difficult to count.

She also said that there are now new challenges that the 2020 Census faces. The list includes the following:
*Dramatically underfunded (50% decrease per household from 2010)
• Fewer local offices, less field staff, anticipated challenges recruiting qualified enumerators for non-response follow up
• Moving to primarily online Census, raising concerns about data security and presenting challenges for those who lack digital access and literacy
• Fear and lack of trust in federal government, including data privacy
• Anxiety among immigrant communities due to Citizenship Question

Her report cited the fact that the City of East Palo Alto, in comparison with California as a whole, is particularly vulnerable to undercounting, since it contains a higher than average number of areas that exceed the state average with respect to poverty levels, limited or non-English speaking, those living in rental housing and in crowded housing, and those without a college degree – all factors that might make the inhabitants hard to count.

Also, statistics show that 43% of East Palo Alto’s residents are foreign born and 73% speak a language other than English, additional characteristics that could lead to an undercount of the city‘s residents

There is a lot at stake in Census 2020. According to Gosh, “In 2015, $675 billion was distributed nationwide. CA received about $77 billion. That equates to $2,000 per resident per year for the next 10 years.”

Gosh and Ramakrishnan ended their council presentation by asking the five council members to partner with San Mateo County in its outreach efforts to get all eligible East Palo Alto residents to participate in the 2020 Census.

Council members and the city staff agreed to work with county officials to do everything that they could to see that all East Palo Alto residents are counted.

Considering the numbers of residents within the city, who fall in the difficult to count category, an all-out effort will be needed, especially since the recent government shutdown might have added another complication.

Research by current data collecting organizations, like the Pew Research organization, shows that the 35-day government shutdown has negatively impacted many areas of the federal government, including the Census Bureau. The shutdown leaves open whether the bureau will be able to print census documents by the July 29 deadline.

Given the effects of the shutdown, the lawsuits and the locations of those who are most vulnerable to being undercounted in the census, it might take an enormous effort by state, county, city and a multitude of census supporters to get citizens and noncitizens alike to overcome their fear and distrust of the government to participate in Census 2020, even when the issue involving the Citizenship Question is resolved.


What do you think? We'd like to hear from you. Do you think the Citizenship Question should be added to the 2020 Census? Go to https://flipgrid.com/qv4sss8 and give EPA Today your feedback. You can record your response with your phone or give your feedback via your laptop or desktop computer.

The author of this article, Henrietta J. Burroughs , can be contacted by email at epatoday@epatoday.org