CHICAGO – Here’s a riddle for you: What happens every 10 years, tells us how to spend our government’s money wisely and is responsible for ensuring that our democracy doesn’t fall to pieces?
It’s the U.S. census, the decennial count that, among other things, helps determine how much federal funding goes to each community and ensures they are all represented by the right number of legislators.
The 2020 census has been in peril for years now due to a death-by-a-million-cuts to its operating budget, and it’s also been crippled by the Trump administration’s insistence on asking a question about citizenship status.
In late January, a federal judge ordered the question removed, citing clear violation of the rules governing the process of adding new inquiries to the already long list.
However, President Trump wants what he wants, and the administration is appealing.
The issue may go as far as the Supreme Court, which will cost the Census Bureau money, time and attention that could instead be dedicated to training and hiring the approximately half a million temporary workers it needs to canvass the country.
Every decade, the Census Bureau is laser focused on using what amounts to a shoestring budget to get the word out that every man, woman and child must be counted accurately in order to call the exercise a success.
But it seems as though that possibility has already been dashed by the Trump administration’s insistence on turning off large swaths of people who don’t want to answer the citizenship question because they fear that an honest reply will somehow be used against them. Others don’t want to answer the question out of solidarity with foreign-born residents who have been relentlessly targeted by the administration for harassment based solely on their legal or illegal immigration status.
“There is confirmed evidence that the damage has already been done to the 2020 census,” said Arturo Vargas, the chief executive officer of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. “We have done surveys and focus groups on Asian- and African-Americans … and so many others, and all the research shows that constituents in those groups have a fear of participating in the census and are very skeptical that their information can be shared with confidence.”
Similarly, a summary of the comments received on the 2020 Census Federal Register notice found that more than 92 percent were related to the inclusion of the citizenship question – and 99 percent of those comments were against including the question.
It’s no wonder.
The query implies that the aggressively anti-immigrant Trump administration will use the data to further step up deportations.
And in an era when people are being asked for their “papers” in cars, on buses and trains, and at checkpoints far from the border, it’s easy to imagine that many people – even legal immigrants and U.S.-born citizens, who have, yes, been hauled into custody on suspicion of being undocumented – would be quite wary of strangers purporting to be from the government asking all kinds of questions about their lives. That goes double for mixed-status immigrant families.
Supposing that the citizenship question is successfully kept off the 2020 census questionnaire, the cat’s pretty much already out of the bag.
“We already have a well-documented undercount of certain population groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, persons without a stable residence or in multiple-family homes, and young children,” said Julie Dowling, a University of Illinois Latina/Latino studies professor, in an April 2018 interview on the university’s blog. Dowling wrote about how people respond to race and ethnicity questions on the census in her 2014 book, “Mexican Americans and the Question of Race.”
In the interview, Dowling concluded: “Given what we know about who often gets missed by the census count, the citizenship question is likely to increase the undercount, particularly of groups with higher percentages of immigrants. … We know that 400,000 Latino children under the age of 5 were not counted in the 2010 census. With the addition of a citizenship question, I expect this number will increase. With noncitizens being fearful of filling out the form, we will miss not only these immigrants, but their U.S.-born citizen children as well. This could have dramatic effects on counting of … communities with a high proportion of immigrants, with dire consequences for states like California, Texas, New York and Illinois.”
This means these communities would be invisible in the eyes of government. And such a lack of representation would be a momentous erosion of our cherished democracy.
E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @estherjcepeda. © 2019, Washington Post Writers Group.