What a Question About Citizenship on the U.S. Census Could Mean

Depressing immigrant participation could hurt Democrats, affect redistricting, the apportionment of congressional seats, and more than $600 billion in federal funds.
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At a time when populations are exploding in Democrat-controlled districts with multi-ethnic, progressive urban centers, immigrants failing to participate in the 2020 Census would help Republicans.

Illustration by RussellCreative/Getty Images.

Update: Jan. 17, 2019.
A federal judge has ruled that it is illegal for the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, setting the stage for a showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Getting immigrants to participate in the census is a decennial exercise in persistence.

Now, just a year before 2020 census forms are to begin showing up in U.S. mailboxes, a battle over adding a question about an individual’s U.S. citizenship to the survey could well land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

This week, Judge Jesse M. Furman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, ruled that the controversial request by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross Jr. was illegal. And in an expansive, 277-page opinion that at times excoriates Ross, Furman called the decision “arbitrary and capricious” and ordered the Trump administration to stop its plans to add it to the survey.

The New York trial covered two of seven lawsuits that challenged Ross’ decision to add the question and the government is likely to appeal Furman’s ruling to the Supreme Court. Timing is crucial as the Census Bureau needs to finalize the 2020 questionnaire by June.

Ross had asserted, and the Department of Justice had argued, that the government needs the information to better enforce the Voting Rights Act “and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting.”

But two sets of plaintiffs—which included several states, cities, counties and mayors as well as a coalition of civil rights organizations—alleged among other things that the decision was motivated “in part by invidious discrimination against immigrant communities of color.”

Advocates believe if the question is successfully added, it could chill immigrant participation and benefit Republicans politically.

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“I don’t know what Jeff Sessions’ intention is, but the time we’re living in is a time of fear in our community, and adding a question of citizenship will certainly depress Census turnout,” said Sindy Benavides, interim COO for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

President Trump built a campaign around the promise to deport those in the country without documents and build a wall on the country’s Southern border to keep them out. Since he took office, immigrants have been detained and removed just for speaking up.

Benavides said Trump’s actions have left many in immigrant communities understandably fearful. “The Dreamer community and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) holders don’t know if the government is going to be coming after them after certain deadlines. It adds to the fear.”

The headcount is not restricted to just citizens. Everybody in the country is counted, regardless of immigration status.

Immigrants failing to participate would help Republicans.

But at a time when populations are exploding in Democrat-controlled districts with multi-ethnic, progressive urban centers, immigrants failing to participate would help Republicans. For many stagnating rural and whiter areas, retaining political power practically requires a bad count. One way to do that is to keep populations with some of the most robust growth away from Census forms in 2020. This includes undocumented immigrants and minorities who are driving U.S. growth.

The Census Bureau already asks about citizenship on its American Community Survey, an ongoing survey that is sent to nearly 300,000 households monthly.

Before 1950s, it had included the question on forms that went to every U.S. household, former Census Bureau Associate Director for Communications Steve Jost said. After that year, it reassigned the question to its so-called long form, which went to one in six U.S. households. After the 2000 Census, the long form was converted to the ACS.

The population once-every-10-year count helps determine redistricting, the apportionment of U.S. House of Representatives seats as well as the distribution of more than $600 billion in federal funds.

Queries about citizenship can only stir extra apprehension in states such as Mississippi, where the legislature already mandates that state departments and agencies share resident status.

The Census cannot, by law, share responses with the DOJ or ICE.

There is a lot of angst to navigate and an overwhelming amount of outreach necessary to counter it. That’s why advocates plan to fan out across eastern and southern Mississippi in hopes of encouraging immigrants to be counted.

Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler said the edgy migrant population needs to be made aware that the Census cannot, by law, share responses with the DOJ or ICE, despite whatever implication they get from the DOJ’s controversial request.

“We’re starting a couple of years ahead of time, educating people about it,” Chandler said. “It’s going to be a big part of our agenda this year. We’re taking our message around the whole state because we’ve got to be ready for this.”

The group plans to have representatives working the Hispanic-heavy territories in the eastern section of the state and on the southern coast, spreading awareness about the importance of participation. They admit it will require plenty of footwork.

“We’ve got to be ready for this.”

“You have to go door-to-door. That’s the best way to do it,” MIRA’s Community Coordinator Melinda Medina said. “Social media helps, but the most effective way is to go directly into the neighborhoods, go into the apartment complexes and host meetings.”

Field representatives must overcome the new immigrant population’s sheer mobility. Rarely renting the same space for more than a few years makes finding people tricky. But the population is also highly religious and Medina said reaching groups during Catholic Mass is a sure method for making contact.

“It’s going to take a few years and more than a dozen people to (dispel the fear), but I believe that we can actually get this done,” said Medina. “It helps to know the population and know the facts.”

Conservative groups don’t really try to hide their desire to curb the count and knock the legs out from under voters in majority-Democrat districts. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who labors to stifle Democrat turnout, told Breitbart news that it was unfair to have large numbers of non-voters skewing counts.

“There are about 710,000 people in each congressional district. But, if half of the district is made up of illegal aliens, then there are only 355,000 citizens in the district. The value of each citizen’s vote in such a district is twice as high,” Kobach stated.

“It helps to know the population and know the facts.”

Getting an accurate tally was already a headache without Republican meddling. In prior years in Mississippi, the bureau used too many white male enumerators, who were uneasy about approaching small black rural communities and so would estimate the number of people they thought lived there, leading to suspected undercounts of minorities. Mississippi also needed more Spanish-speaking census takers in previous counts, although Chandler said he does not expect that to be a problem this time.

More than 10 years ago, MIRA joined the pro-democracy organization, Southern Echo, to help the Census Bureau fill the holes in its ground game. The two groups broadcast the upcoming count, with Southern Echo working the largely impoverished areas in the western half of the state, and MIRA focusing on Latino populations in the eastern sector. Chandler said both organizations learned from various sputtering misfires, and now have an upgraded strategy.

Southern Echo Senior Policy Analyst and co-founder Leroy Johnson said his association is jumping ahead again this year by singling out 30 anticipated problem counties in the impoverished outlands upon which to focus. They’ve been updating residents’ addresses and are coordinating with Census Bureau state liaison officers to net as many elusive residents as possible.

Nobody, he said, will be waiting for the Census Bureau’s response to the DOJ’s controversial request. There is no penalty for jumping the gun. “We’re doing this process starting now.”