Opposition mounts to Trump administration attempt to ‘rig the census’
In this Oct. 2017 file photo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss preparing for the 2020 Census, on Capitol Hill in Washington. J. Scott Applewhite | AP

WASHINGTON—Opposition is mounting to what one critic calls a Trump administration attempt to “rig the census” by inserting a question demanding citizenship status that would make it likely minorities – especially those with Hispanic surnames – are undercounted.

That planned question, unveiled by Trump Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, has already been challenged by California, New York, Common Cause, the Center for American Progress and other progressive groups. The state filed a lawsuit against Ross and his department – which includes the Census Bureau – in federal court in San Francisco. And Common Cause is circulating a petition opposing it and urging signers to call on Congress to stop the question.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the others say the citizenship question would cause a massive undercount of Hispanic-named people, fearful of retaliation by the federal government, even if they’re documented. So do 161 mayors from both parties, led by Bill de Blasio of New York, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans.

And an undercount would in turn shortchange states with high Hispanic populations, including California, Illinois, New York, Florida and Texas, on everything from federal funds to U.S. House and state legislative seats, depriving those residents of political power.

There’s a precedent for that, too. The 1920 census was the first to show an urban majority. That development horrified and alarmed nativists and rural dwellers. Their lawmakers conducted a successful 10-year rearguard action preventing redistricting – reallotment of congressional and state legislative seats – nationwide to prevent the shift of political power to the nation’s cities.

“We must speak out NOW to demand that Congress prevent this deliberate attempt to rig the census to undercount communities of color. Tell your members of Congress to oppose any legislation and/or moves by the Census Bureau to add a question on citizenship or immigration status,” Common Cause said on its website petition.

“Save The Census,” the Center for American Progress said. The citizenship question on the 2020 census form is “untested and unnecessary” and “yet another attack on immigrants, as well as fair representation across the nation.” The last time the bureau asked for citizenship status was 1960.

“Experts are predicting the response rate to the census could drop drastically, as people avoid it out of fear and panic. Having an accurate census count is critical to every facet of our nation, from allocating resources at the local level, to congressional representation at the national level, and this change will only make it less likely we have accurate census data,” the center said.

“Despite the administration’s claims that the addition is necessary for protecting voting rights — not something this administration has shown any interest in up until this point — it’s clear this is just a politically motivated attempt to harm communities,” the center added.

The census, mandated by the U.S. Constitution every 10 years, is supposed to count every person residing in the country. But it has been plagued with undercount problems. A 1992 paper presented to the Census Bureau, for example, said the agency reported a 5.2 percent undercount of Hispanic-named people, a 4.8 percent undercount of African-Americans, a 3.1 percent undercount of Asian-Pacific Islanders and a 5 percent undercount of Native Americans.

Author Jorge Duany noted the bureau’s yearly Current Population Survey showed the real Hispanic undercount in 1990 – 28 years ago – was 20 percent. “People routinely withhold information from the government because they suspect its motives in collecting data,” he added.

And there are constant complaints and challenges from frigid Northeastern and Midwestern states and cities that an April 1 census date undercounts their populations because of “snowbirds” – residents who spend the winter months in sunnier climes.

Even the Census Bureau itself acknowledges it will have problems with the 2020 tally. A graphic in its latest work plan for the headcount shows a series of interlocking circles of problems in one large circle around the words “The 2020 Census.” The interlocking circles read “Distrust in government,” “Declining response rates,” “Increasing diversity of population,” “Informal, complex living arrangements,” “A mobile population,” “Constrained fiscal environment” – the GOP-run Congress has shortchanged the Census Bureau – “Rapidly changing use of technology,” and “Information explosion.”

Both Becerra and the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, headed now by former Obama administration civil rights division chief Vanita Gupta, held Trump responsible for the citizenship question and its implications. Ross conceded he responded to a request for it from Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was notorious as a GOP senator for Alabama for his anti-Hispanic screeds.

“It’s no surprise that support for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census goes all the way up to President Trump, casting doubt on the Justice Department’s stated reasons for proposing this untested question at the 11th hour,” Gupta said. “The president’s support for this unnecessary, untested question is just one more example of this administration’s hostility toward immigrants and people of color.”

“Secretary Ross testified the Constitution requires a count of every person in the United States, including non-citizens, but that statement of fact is not enough. Adding a new, untested question at this late hour will devastate the likelihood of a fair and accurate census. We urge the secretary to stand firm against pressure from the president’s re-election campaign to disrupt and politicize the census.”

“#BREAKING: Filing suit against @realdonaldtrump’s Administration over decision to add #citizenship question on #2020Census. Including the question is not just a bad idea — it is illegal,” one Becerra tweet read. The second, showing the lead page of the lawsuit, denounced “@realdonaldtrump‘s #census2020 decision. #California simply has too much to lose for us to allow his administration to botch this obligation!”

“The size of your child’s kindergarten class. Homeland Security funds for your community. Natural disaster preparation. Highway and mass transit resources. Health care and emergency room services,” Becerra added in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Vital services such as these would be jeopardized and our voice in government diminished if the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 count resulted in an undercount. Beyond its constitutional role in redistricting, a proper count conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau shapes our everyday lives.

“The Trump administration is threatening to derail the integrity of the census by seeking to add a question relating to citizenship to the 2020 census questionnaire. Innocuous at first blush, its effect would be truly insidious. It would discourage noncitizens and their citizen family members from responding to the census, resulting in a less accurate population count,” he said.

Minorities, especially Hispanics and African-Americans in the nation’s largest cities, are not the only groups concerned with an undercount. The Census Bureau plans not to ask a question about lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender status, too.

The LGBTQ community also wants to make sure it’s not overlooked or undercounted. “We’ve been erased!” one LGBTQ group said when a proposed list of census questions first had one about that status – and then didn’t.

“To go uncounted in our society is to be unseen by our policymakers,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., e-mailed to the Atlantic after introducing legislation to ensure LGBTQ people would be counted. “Enshrining in law the vital right of this demographic to be counted would have prevented future administrations, like this one, from pursuing policies that could harm the LGBTQ community.”

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CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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