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‘Flawed logic’ behind citizenship question on 2020 census

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The paperwork used by census takers in 2000. 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)

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau gathers data to account for every resident in America. This was programmed into the Constitution. The census has been a powerful tool for ascertaining population changes in America and in directing our federal policies to accommodate for those changes.

“If you’re not counted, do you count?” That was Kai Ryssdal’s opening salvo on NPR’s “Marketplace,” which on March 27 reported the new White House directive to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 census. With the purported objective of enforcing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, The Trump administration plans to add this question to the 2020 census questionnaire: “Are you a citizen of the United States?”

Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, championed the change and pushed the idea that the citizenship question was not nearly enough. His arguments, however, sidestep the question of why we need to collect data on citizenship in this survey.

“The question was included in censuses, continuously and without controversy, from 1890-1950, a period which encompassed the years of highest immigration and the highest percentage of foreign-born citizens in American history,” Gonzalez wrote. “It was asked on the long-form census until 2000 and continues to be asked today on the American Community Survey.

“[T]here’s no proof that inclusion of the question in the ACS today leads to an undercount,” he continued.

Yes, but that’s not arguing the case that the question enforces voting rights laws. If asking the question in the past had no effect on voting rights laws, why should it matter now?

California has filed a suit against the Trump administration over its decision to include the citizenship question, and San Francisco announced Tuesday that it is joining the 17 states and seven cities challenging the question.

“California, with its large immigrant communities, would be disproportionately harmed by depressed participation in the 2020 census,” wrote California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Secretary of State Alex Padilla in a recent op-ed. “An undercount would threaten at least one of California’s seats in the House of Representatives [and, by extension, an elector in the electoral college].”

Millions of immigrants would be scared into silence, choosing not to respond to the census, harming the way California and its cities and counties do business, care for its residents, and are granted federal funds. The programs that could be impacted include funds for mass transit, foster care, disaster preparation, children’s health insurance, Medicaid, school lunches, emergency room services and many more.

“If you’re here illegally, you don’t deserve Congressional representation.” Fox News anchor Dana Perino argued, adding that “federal resources should not be expended on those who are here illegally.”

Perino misses the bigger picture. If non-citizens were undercounted, then federal funds for the state would diminish, leading to non-citizens and citizens being adversely affected. As Norm Eisen from the Brookings Institute breaks it down, “People will have less medical care and less to eat and it won’t only be those who don’t answer the census.”

In San Francisco, there are a lot of people who won’t be counted accurately, particularly those living on the Westside, said Cally Wong, director of the API (Asian and Pacific Islander) Council. Nearly 15,000 people from the API community living in San Francisco are undocumented and they would worry that filling out their details would affect their resident status.

“In places like San Francisco, they’re not taking CalWORKs because they’re afraid of what that would mean for their legal status or if they’ll be deported,” she said, noting oftentimes only one family per household fills out the survey and “sometimes you have families, three to five families, living in the basement.”

Census data informs our politics and shapes how we live, where we live, how we do business and with whom we do business. This data defines our collective voice. It is this voice that has implications of safety and accountability.

Socioeconomic data is gathered by the American Community Survey (ACS), a survey that is sent to a small percentage of people every year. The ACS asks questions about citizenship, year of entry into the U.S. and determines the size of ethnic populations and immigrant groups. The ACS records demographic changes and the decennial U.S. Census records population changes. The ACS data could very well be used to enforce and preserve voting rights laws. Why add it to the decennial census, which is primarily to determine representation in Congress and the distribution of federal funds?

The decennial census data is more granular than the ACS, which collects data in units of census blocks, which are small geographical units and could be neighborhoods or even apartment buildings. Citizenship details at this level could be used to target residents, especially those who are undocumented. More than 6 percent of California’s population is undocumented.

Gathering momentum is a Twitter hashtag #leaveitblank that urges people to leave the citizenship question unanswered in the 2020 census survey. In this immigration-sensitive political climate, a question that hints at immigration status or even about race or ethnicity in the census could lead to an inadequately answered or unanswered questionnaire, which becomes a failed federal initiative. That’s why the Census Bureau’s advisory panel of experts have released a statement saying the decision to add the citizenship question is based on “flawed logic” and could likely decrease the accuracy of the head count and increase the cost to conduct the survey.

The ideal situation would be if Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. rescinded the addition of the citizenship question in the next census. Regardless, it is still imperative that every San Francisco resident fills out the census 2020 survey. California has much too much to lose with an inaccurate population count.

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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