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Everyone counts in the U.S. Census

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The Trump administration plans to add a question to the 2020 census that asks, “Are you a citizen of the United States?” (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Census Bureau invites the public to comment on Census 2020’s citizenship question at censuscounts.org by midnight on Aug. 7, 2018.

Every person in San Francisco is going to be affected by the count. It is crucial that we understand that an inaccurate census will matter not only for immigrants, undocumented individuals, people of color, underserved communities, African Americans, Native Americans, rural and urban residents and young children but for every individual residing in The City, in California, and indeed all of the U.S.

The census is conducted every 10 years. There is a real and present danger of an undercount with the 2020 census, with no way to correct inaccuracies for a whole decade. Why does that matter?

SEE RELATED: ‘Flawed logic’ behind citizenship question on 2020 census

An accurate and valid census count is critical for two reasons. The census is a democratic tool to make every individual matter in the legislative process. It determines a state’s congressional representation. After the 1990 census, California added seven congress members. The 2000 census yielded one new congressional seat. Today, California has 53 seats in the House of Representatives. If there’s an undercount of the residents in 2020, California could lose one or more seats in Congress.

The second critical reason is funding. The amount of federal and state funds that come to our communities is derived from census data.

At an Ethnic Media Services press briefing, Terri Ann Lowenthal, former staff director of the House Census and Population Subcommittee, currently with the Leadership Conference Education Fund, listed money for school construction, art classes, health care for low income kids, school lunches, improvements to highways and transit systems, job training programs and veterans’ programs as some of the initiatives that could be affected.

It is clear that the anti-immigrant rhetoric displayed by the administration has the potential to dissuade immigrants from responding to the census. But now that the Commerce Department has added the citizenship question to the census 2020 questionnaire, there is mounting evidence that it will depress the count.

Twenty-five percent of the Asian population arrived in the U.S. in the last seven years, said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). This means that one in four Asians in the United States have never participated in the census.

“It is literally foreign to them,” said Yang. This group is likely to misunderstand the purpose of the citizenship question leading to an inaccurate count of Asian Americans, said Yang.

Other community leaders echoed Yang’s assessment. “Adding the citizenship question to the census questionnaire will result in an unprecedented undercount of Latinos,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.

Jeri Green of the National Urban League called the impact of an inaccurate 2020 census on the black population severe. Black communities “living in inner cities and rural communities risk losing the most in terms of federal funding, political representation and equal rights under the law,” Green said.

People worry about the confidentiality of the personal data they submit in the census form. However, there are very strict confidentiality requirements that are set in place for 72 years.

“All the data that are collected are only used to aggregate them for statistical purposes and no one’s individual information is allowed to be shared with any federal, state or local agency or anybody other than the census bureau,” Vargas explained.

If the law is observed, then the census data collected should not and cannot lead to deportation proceedings or targeting of underserved communities in any way.

Further, taken on its own, the citizenship question will not distinguish legal immigrants from undocumented immigrants. It’s a self-reported citizenship measure with no guarantee of accuracy.

Given the pervasive sense of mistrust of the federal administration’s motives, members of vulnerable communities are likely to choose not to engage with the government in any way, preferring to leave no public trace of their existence lest they are identified by the government or its agencies.

If this fear of being counted in the census persists, it will prove costly for California with its high proportion of immigrants, and will affect the rights of all Californians, regardless of race, color or status.

The Census Bureau has invited the public to comment on the 2020 census, including the citizenship question, on censuscounts.org.

The deadline for submitting public comments on the website — or through snail mail — is 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 7, 2018. Lowenthal stressed that there are no extensions to the deadline. She requested the public to “minimize messaging and really focus on the facts.”

It is not clear if the current Congress or federal administration will pay heed to public comments. According to Lowenthal and Yang, historically the public comment process has been instrumental in modifying various aspects of the census, and so could have an effect this year, too. Public comments could also likely weigh on the minds of legislators in Congress, which has the right and duty to provide oversight to the census enumeration process.

Including the citizenship question in the census questionnaire is mere fear-mongering with the aim of suppressing or inhibiting California’s voice in the legislative process. We, the public, have an opportunity to de-politicize the census with our comments. We need an accurate count to continue investing in our people. This is not about being a democrat or a republican. It’s about being a San Franciscan, a Californian.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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