Census in limbo waiting on courts

A top U.S. Census Bureau official told an Albuquerque audience Friday that the 2020 survey is ready to head to the printer for deployment this summer, but must await a final decision on one controversial question currently caught up in the courts.

The question in question: Is this person a citizen of the United States?

Addressing attendees of the Population and Public Policy Conference hosted by the University of New Mexico Geospatial and Population Studies, Timothy Olson, associate director for field operations at the U.S. Census Bureau, said the agency faces a “hard deadline in June” for finalizing questions so questionnaires can be printed.

Timothy Olson

Results from the 2020 Census will shape how the American people are represented at the national, state, and local level.

And there’s a lot at stake – according to Olson, more than $675 billion in federal funds are allocated to states, counties, cities and tribes each year based on census results, influencing how transportation, housing, education, health care and other vital services are delivered to the population.

“We will conduct the census with or without the citizenship question,” Olson said. “My job, and all of my peers’ job, is to make sure the census is as accurate as possible. We’re just waiting for a final decision to go to print. If the decision is delayed, that presents new challenges for us. We’re hopeful that firm direction will be provided, so we know which version to print.”

A federal judge in New York last month blocked the government from asking about citizenship status on the 2020 census, the Associated Press reported, the first major ruling in cases contending officials forced the question through for Republican political purposes to intentionally undercount immigrants.

In a 277-page decision that won’t be the final word on the issue, Judge Jesse M. Furman ruled that while such a question would be constitutional, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner and violated the law.

When Ross announced the plan in March, he said the question was necessary to help the government enforce the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law meant to protect political representation of minority groups.

But opponents fear the citizenship question would discourage residents in households with noncitizens to respond, potentially leading to a population undercount and possibly fewer seats in Congress from places that tend to vote Democratic.

“The census is safe,” Olson said. “You’re information is protected by law. We can’t reveal individual responses. Any law enforcement, any government agency – ICE cannot receive our data on the personal level.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear evidentiary-related legal issues surrounding the New York case on Feb. 19. A trial on a separate suit filed by the state of California is underway in San Francisco.

According to the Pew Research Center, a citizenship question was asked in each census of the total population from 1890 to 1950. Until 1920, it was only asked of adult men – women and children automatically had the same citizenship status as their husbands or fathers.

The question was not asked in the 1960 census, and since then, the citizenship question has been asked of only a sample of households.

Olson also told attendees that the Census Bureau will take more advantage of technology in 2020. The 2020 Census will be the first to allow residents to complete the survey online and census workers will use secure smartphones to canvass neighborhoods and conduct follow-up interviews. The smartphones will also use apps containing maps and travel plans for employees, he said.

“It’s an amazing advancement over the billions of pieces of paper that we used in prior censuses,” he said.

The bureau must count the population by April 1, 2020, deliver state counts to President Donald Trump by Dec. 31, 2020, and provide redistricting data to the states by April 1, 2021.

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