Questioning Who Counts: The 2020 Census and Citizenship

The census provides crucial demographic data that’s used to allocate resources—and suppressing responses from immigrants and other marginalized communities could have dire consequences.
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As the Supreme Court justices hear oral arguments over the 2020 census citizenship question, protesters gather in Washington, D.C., April 23 in support of a fair and accurate census and to demand not to include the controversial question in the next census.

Photo by Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Across Washington state, a coalition of nonprofits is mobilizing to ensure participation in a federal exercise once considered mundane: the decennial census.

The Trump administration hopes to include a citizenship question on the census questionnaire, raising fear and suspicion—especially among immigrant and non-English-speaking communities already pressured by a wide-scale immigration crackdown—about the privacy of the information submitted to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Including the citizenship question is expected to depress turnout among those communities, resulting in reduced representation in Congress and reduced federal funding for many programs that help lower-income people in states that have larger immigrant populations.

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Many of those states tend to vote Democrat rather than Republican, and critics of the citizenship question say the move is a blatant attempt by Republicans to create a permanent advantage for themselves in Congress and state legislatures. This was reinforced by the recent discovery of new documents connecting the citizenship question to earlier Republican attempts to redraw legislative and Congressional districts in their favor.

By the end of June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule for or against inclusion of a citizenship question.

Entre Hermanos, a Seattle nonprofit focused on promoting the well-being and health of the Latino LGBTQ community, is one of the groups working on the census.

Eric Holzapfel, the organization’s immigration program manager, says community members “need to know what’s at stake for them, their families, and the state, if they are not counted” in the census.

That means a combination of education and outreach through the group’s radio station Mucho Gusto: setting up information tables at community events, canvassing neighborhoods, phone banking, and direct engagement at community forums and consulates.

Entre Hermanos is doing this work under the umbrella of the Washington Census Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 organizations across the state now directing resources and energy towards communities historically undercounted in the census.

WCA member organizations are equipping communities most likely to be negatively impacted by the census to know and understand their rights. Holzapfel says Entre Hermanos will help communities “separate fact from fiction.”

A community forum hosted on April 17 by Entres Hermanos, where participants discuss health and issues that affect the Latino LGBTQ community. Photo from Entres Hermanos.

The U.S. Census was designed to determine an “actual enumeration” of people living in the United States, without regard to citizenship. It’s this count that establishes the apportionment of federal funds and legislative representation for every state at both federal and state levels.

The decision by Ross to add a citizenship question has been highly contentious and litigious, resulting in losses for the administration before U.S. District Court judges in New York and California.

In January, Judge Jesse M. Furman of the Southern District of New York ruled that adding the citizenship question to the census was unlawful and that Ross’ stated reasoning for the question—to enforce the Voting Rights Act—was “pretextual,” or fabricated. “It follows,” Furman wrote, “that a court cannot sustain agency action founded on a pretextual or sham justification that conceals the true ‘basis’ for the decision.”

Similarly, Judge Richard Seeborg of the Northern District of California found that the addition of a citizenship question, “will materially harm the accuracy of the census without advancing any legitimate governmental interest. … In short, Secretary Ross’s decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census undermines the ‘strong constitutional interest in [the] accuracy of the census….’”

According to Mary McCord, a visiting professor and constitutional scholar at the Georgetown University Law Center, “the addition of a citizenship question will result in a substantial undercount of the population, particularly in minority and immigrant communities.” This would also make a significant impact on “the fair apportionment of seats in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures, and to the distribution of billions of dollars in federal aid,” factors that significantly affect every state in the nation, she says.

If the Department of Commerce is allowed by the Court to move forward, the Census Bureau could see a big undercount of minority voting, McCord says.

The Urban Institute has estimated more than 1.2 million Latinx people could go uncounted in the census from demographic changes alone, and up to 2.2 million as a result of the citizenship question and the political environment.

The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, where McCord works, along with the general counsel for the House of Representatives, filed an amicus brief in the New York case in support of the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court’s decision is imminent, and McCord says the stakes are high.

And this is where the Washington Census Alliance steps in. The coalition, which is led by people of color, is financially supported by Progress Alliance of Washington and other funders to insure a safe and informed census process for underrepresented and undercounted communities.

Sarah Jaynes, executive director of Progress Alliance, says the group raises “money from our committed individual donors, and then grant it to our network of partner organizations,” and this funding provides support for grassroots participation in Washington’s underrepresented communities.

All of this “happens behind the electoral politics, and actually builds power in communities over the long term, for change,” Jaynes says.

Central to the work of WCA is engaging communities around the census questionnaire, and the potential inclusion of the citizenship question, but Kirsten Harris-Talley, political and programs director at Seattle’s Progress Alliance, says it’s all “a bit of a black box right now.”

How to respond to the questionnaire, Harris-Talley says, “is at the heart of these communities and [they] feel very conflicted.” Neither Progress Alliance nor Washington Census Alliance have taken a position on the citizenship question, but Harris-Talley says “when the time comes, if community asks us, I assume we’re willing to follow [their] lead.”

Left to right, McKenna Lux, CAIR WA (Council on American-Islamic Relations), Rick Polintan, APACE-WA (Asian Pacfic Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment), and Juan Fernando Luna, Entres Hermanos, testifiy March 29 in front of the Washington state Senate, advocating for $15 million in state funds to be dedicated to community-based outreach. Photo from Washington Census Alliance.

“This has definitely been on our minds,” says Holzapfel of Entre Hermanos. The work of the alliance “isn’t [only] about getting everyone to fill out the census,” but also about equipping “folks [to] be owners of a well-educated, well-informed decision.” The Washington state government has allocated $15 million to support an accurate 2020 census count, but Holzapfel says the state has yet to provide specific language about anticipated outcomes of the initiative, or what success will look like.

The WCA and its member organizations are focused on delivering education and outreach, which is not the same as telling community members how to respond to the census. “If we're doing our job well,” he says, “our clients are well-informed, and feel confident in their decision to give or not to give their information to a government entity.” Holzapfel says each WCA member organization would know how best to conduct this work in their respective communities.

Asa Washines, a senior tribal affairs consultant for the Seattle nonprofit More Equitable Democracy, another alliance member organization, said the group’s focus has been raising awareness about the census in tribal communities in Washington and Oregon. In collaboration with Seattle’s urban Indian organizations, the group is reaching out to dozens of Native tribes and communities in Washington. “Wherever there are communities of tribal folks,” he says, “I want to engage them.”

The official census day is April 1, 2020, but for some of the Washington Census Alliance member organizations, the work has already begun. Holzapfel says it will kick into high gear this summer and continue into next spring.

“This is really about people talking to people, and the thing I really appreciate about Progress Alliance is that we’re nimble,” Harris-Talley says. “We’re responsive to folks about the next stage of the fight.”

Updated June 18, 2019: The projected undercount of Latinx residents in 2020 and the source of the data was corrected, and the source of funding for grassroots mobilizing was clarified.