Civil rights leaders weigh-in on new census citizenship question

US Census Bureau
US Census Bureau

Trice Edney Communications

Before the public comment period on the 2020 census closed Tuesday, civil rights organizations continued to amplify the clarion call to Americans to denounce the inclusion of a “citizenship question” on the final census form – a question as to whether respondents are U.S. citizens.

Jeri Green, senior advisor for the 2020 census for the National Urban League, said the citizenship question was “untested, unjust and unconstitutional,” and should be opposed by all Americans.

Conducted every 10 years, the constitutionally mandated census is “the nation’s largest and complex peacetime activity,” explained Terri Ann Lowenthal, former Staff Director of the House Census and Population Subcommittee, and currently Policy Advisor, Leadership Conference Education Fund.

Generating feedback on the citizenship question, though time-sensitive, was only one concern of each of the panelists on a LCEF media conference call organized with the assistance of Ethnic Media Services.

For example, Green, a former Census Bureau employee, contends that the Census Bureau’s typical “what’s in it for you?” messaging to the Black community must change. “A different narrative is needed to motivate the Black population to participate in the 2020 Census.”

Green said the NUL, in concert with other organizations, is “developing strategies to ensure that African Americans understand that political power and representation are at stake, and that we cannot afford to lose an inch of political ground by ignoring the Census.”

She reminded attendant media that “Black America” comprises immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as those African Americans who, with predictable regularity, are still undercounted and have been so since the first 1790 census.

Panelists repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Census Bureau getting the count right because mistakes have monetary and social repercussions lasting through the decade and beyond. The estimated annual $600 to $675 billion drawdown of federal funds, based on and allocated to states, counties and cities using census data, would expand to over $6 trillion until next decennial count in 2030. More difficult to quantify and qualify over that span is the impact of the loss of a family’s home, food insecurity, or lack of access to medical care.

Yes, Green said, African Americans – as do many Americans across ethnic lines – benefit from federally programs based on Census data, among them Medicaid, the medical assistance program; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Health Center Programs for community, migrant, homeless, public housing; and Low Income Home Energy Assistance.

“But for many African Americans residing in urban communities, state and local funding has become a one-way ticket out of their communities, out of affordable housing, and out of health care coverage – bye-bye Obama Care,” she argued.

With the near universal specter of urban gentrification across America in mind, Green said, “The neighborhood school funded by state and local funding 10 years ago, has been razed and a new multimillion-dollar condominium complex sits in its place today. Simply put, many African Americans are not better off than they were 10 years ago.

“But, wherever you might live – even if displaced, federal funding allocations, based on Census data, still support services vital to our communities, and well-being.”

One of the NUL’s concerns about the census, is the practice of prison-based gerrymandering. Prisoners are still to be counted as residents of the communities where they are incarcerated, rather than the communities where they live, despite an outpouring of public comment for the Census Bureau to end the practice.

Green said NUL president, Marc Morial, considers this type of gerrymandering predatory because the per capita funds that should follow each prisoner into his or her community – revenue that would benefit the hospitals, housing, schools and transportation infrastructure therein – is being diverted. In his view, African American communities are continuously and unjustly losing to others revenue that should rightly be theirs.

However, loss or diversion of funding is but one consequence of an undercount. John C. Yang, president and executive director of the Asian Americans Advancing Justice reiterated that census data are the basis for drawing congressional districts. Less well known, he explained that data also trigger a provision of the Voting Rights Act. Census data are the driving factors in determining when ballots are required to be printed in an additional language, based upon the percentage of an ethnic group’s population who do not speak English as their primary language.

It was census data in 2010, for example, that recorded the growth of the Chinese American population in Harris County, the home of Houston. Thus, for the first time in that jurisdiction – and mandated by law – election materials and ballots also were printed in Chinese.

Voting education and ballot access likely will continue to be a core issue for newly minted Asian Americans.

Yang said that, due to recent immigration, “one in four Asian Americans have never participated in the census” and that when all the ethnic groups comprising the Asian American community are totaled, “60 percent are immigrants.” Initiatives that depress census participation – like the citizenship question – could negatively affect the future political voice of Asian Americans.

Taking umbrage and aim at the intention of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to include the citizenship question on the Census form, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of LCEF, called the Ross initiative misguided and politically motivated. Comments and email exchanges between and among administration officials are being made public due to Freedom of Information Act requests. Those materials are bearing out her assertions, according a judge who is ruling in one of the raft of law of lawsuits challenging Secretary Ross’s goal.

Panelists ceded that some issues plaguing the 2020 count are not of Census Bureau’s own making, including leadership vacancies as a result the administration’s inaction, or the chronic shortfall in funding. Gupta said determining funding levels for the census would be a leading issue for Congress in its upcoming calendar.

But the addition of the question in the current political environment – highly charged with acrimonious debate – would subvert the objective of the census, which is to count all persons living on U.S. soil, not just citizens.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund believes that there is already evidence that it will depress the response rates from the Latino community.

Immigrants, though “legal” or documented, often have relatives or acquaintances who share “mixed status” households. Thus, whether one’s personal immigrant status is secure, others within the same familial or social orbit – whose status may be unresolved – might well decline to respond, fearing deportation or possible incarceration.

Among Asian Americans, residual paranoia about responding to the census is more than partly due to the indelible memory of the U.S government’s use of census data to identify and imprison Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Yang, though convinced there are now “much stronger privacy laws in place” to sufficiently protect the confidentiality of census data, also opposes adding the citizenship question.

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