Local elected officials and community organizations are preparing to get the word out to make sure everyone is counted in the 2020 U.S. Census, even as the battle over a census question about citizenship continues in the courts.
In March, the Trump Administration announced it would include the question: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” Officials argued they need a better count of voting-age citizens in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act. Critics believe the question would discourage non-citizens, particularly undocumented immigrants, from participating in the national head count.
A question on citizenship status has not been asked of all U.S. households since the 1950s, although it is still asked in the longer American Community Survey, which reaches about 13 percent of U.S. households every year.
“The Trump Administration is simply trying to get accurate information on the American population,’’ wrote Mike González, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in an op ed published in USA Today. “It’s not new; previous censuses have asked this question. Hostility to this limited reform is overblown, though unfortunately to be expected.”
The Constitution requires a decennial Census, which is used to allocate hundreds of billions in federal funds for schools, hospitals, roads, public works, and other government-funded programs. In 2015, the California Department of Finance estimated that 80 percent of federal funds received by the state where census-related – nearly $77 billion that year.
Data from the census is also used to determine the number of Congressional seats in each state and how electoral districts are drawn. An undercount could have serious consequences for California, with a large undocumented population.
“The census occurs only once every 10 years, and there are no do-overs,” Congressman Jimmy Gómez, whose 34th District includes Boyle Heights, said in a statement. “The data is critical to our democracy, and the repercussions of an unfair, inaccurate count are immense.”
“The census’ new citizenship question is another shameful Trump assault on our democracy,” echoed Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, whose 40th District includes East Los Angeles, in a separate statement. “It will undoubtedly drive down census participation, and cost our neighborhoods federal funds and seats in Congress. Trump is worried about losing power, so he’s trying to take power away from our communities.”
California is among several jurisdictions that have filed lawsuits against the Trump Administration, seeking to remove the citizenship question. In California’s lawsuit, State Attorney General Xavier Becerra argues that it violates a prohibition against “arbitrary and capricious” agency action.
“An accurate census count sets in motion the services and benefits that shape the future of every Californian,” Becerra said in a statement after filing the lawsuit. “California simply has too much too lose to allow the Trump Administration to botch this important decennial obligation.”
California’s is one of six major lawsuits working their way through the courts. Other suits were filed by San Jose and the American Civil Liberties Union. A suit filed by New York and 16 other states went on trial Nov. 5 and on Friday, a judge scheduled closing arguments for Tuesday, Nov. 27.
The Justice Department is vigorously defending the Administration, which is taking steps to move its legal battle to the Supreme Court. At a September hearing, a Justice Department attorney said the Trump Administration does not want to go to trial because it believes it has provided “more than ample information” for the judge to issue a ruling.
For decades, minority groups have been disproportionately undercounted in the census. According to government estimates, the 2010 census failed to count 1.5 million people of color, including 1.5 percent of Hispanics, 2.1 percent of African Americans and 4.9 percent of Native Americans.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), said the Administration’s decision to add the citizenship question was politically motivated and could result in a bigger undercount of Latinos.
NALEO is part of The Census Project, a broad-based network of national and local organizations working together to spread awareness on the challenges facing the upcoming count and to advocate for a fair and accurate Census. The groups are using fact sheets, blog posts, press releases and other materials to help spread awareness of the importance of participating in the count.
This is a challenge for some pro-immigrant organizations, which tell undocumented immigrants to be wary of federal agents when they come to their doors.
“Because there have been massive raids by the Trump Administration, we’ve been warning people to not open the door when it’s a government official,” said State Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, whose district includes Boyle Heights. “But now, we’re needing folks to open their doors to get counted.”
The addition of the citizenship question is not the only problem facing the 2020 Census, which has been plagued by a lack of planning and budget cuts in comparison to previous counts. Only last July did the Trump Administration announce the nomination of Steven Dillingham as director of the U.S. Census Bureau, a post that had been vacant for nearly a year, following the unexpected early retirement by the previous director. At press time, Dillingham’s nomination was awaiting confirmation in the Senate.
Some critics also say that the 2020 census is seriously underfunded. In 2014, Congress mandated that the next census should cost less per household than was spent in 2010.
One way the Census Bureau plans to lower costs is by reducing paper mailings of forms and promoting the internet as the primary response method. This push for a much more internet-centric census presents challenges for those lacking broadband access, which includes many residents of Boyle Heights. Other substantial technological challenges include possible cyber security threats.
According to ABC News, auditors from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have found that the bureau has already spent $3 billion of its $12.5 billion security budget in an effort to secure its computer networks from such threats.
To ensure an accurate count of its residents, California is allocating $90 million for the 2020 census. According to the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office, about three quarters of the funds would go for a media campaign and working with community-based organizations, would conduct most of the direct outreach to individuals.
Illustration by Stephanie Varela for Boyle Heights Beat.