Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Despite Census Citizenship Ruling, Officials Say 'Damage Has Been Done'

The justices rejected the Trump administration's plan, for now, to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Even if it's not ultimately added, there are concerns about immigrants, minorities and low-income people not being counted.

Supreme Court Census Citizenship
Immigration activists rallying outside the U.S. Supreme Court in April as the justices heard arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census.
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a plan on Thursday to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, drawing praise from local government officials and civil rights groups who’ve long feared it could lead to a significant undercount.

But their victory may be short-lived.

The ruling gives the Trump administration an opportunity to provide courts with another explanation for the question’s inclusion in the decennial count.

State and local governments have closely followed the legal battle that’s now extended over a year as they prepare for the 2020 count. Regardless of the eventual outcome, officials say the political climate and publicity around the proposed citizenship question has already created challenges.

“We’ve not been bystanders, waiting for the Trump administration or, respectively, the Supreme Court to do justice to the fear and anxiety, xenophobia and nativism that’s in the air already. The damage has been done,” said California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom at a news conference after the ruling.

The Census plays a critical role in congressional apportionment and how much federal funding state and local governments receive. It’s also used as a population benchmark throughout the federal government. Given its importance, concerns about undercounts have led many governments to begin preparing earlier than in years past.

David Rubedor, who heads the Minneapolis Neighborhood and Community Relations Department, says his staff started to lay the groundwork a year ago. The city has worked with community groups, convened meetings and plans to start canvassing historically undercounted neighborhoods next month.

“Before the citizenship question was even raised, we knew that this Census was going to be harder than the last one,” Rubedor says.

Many Minneapolis immigrants hail from countries where trust in the government is low. Rubedor says U.S. immigration policies are further undermining that trust. 


Impact of Citizenship Question

Just how much of an effect could a citizenship question have?

According to the latest research outlined by the Census Bureau earlier this month, the question would reduce response rates for non-citizens by 8 percentage points. (The research assumes that the question wouldn’t affect response rates in households of U.S. citizens.) That translates to an overall drop of 2.2 percentage points for all households. Such a decline is expected to drive up costs and require additional follow-up for people who don't respond. 

It’s possible the actual drop in participation could be even greater.

The Census Bureau analysis is based on prior data and doesn’t account for changes over time in sensitivity of the issue of immigration. It also cited the potential for some Americans to boycott the Census in solidarity with residents who aren’t citizens. 


Questionable Motives

The Trump administration justified inclusion of the question primarily by arguing that it would provide more detailed data to assist the Justice Department in enforcing provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Mounting evidence, though, has pointed to political motives.

Civil rights groups cite Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross' correspondence with Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, and Kris Kobach, who led a commission on voter fraud, showing they were exploring adding a citizenship question months before the Justice Department made its formal written request in late 2017.

In May, news of documents found on hard drives belonging to deceased GOP operative Thomas Hofeller raised further questions. Hofeller had completed an unpublished study, which concluded that basing political maps on only citizens would prove advantageous for Republicans. He had ghostwritten sections of a draft DOJ letter requesting the citizenship question's addition.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of citizenship question opponents primarily because the administration's stated rationale of including the question to enforce the Voting Rights Act appeared to be "contrived." In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the court “cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given.”


Census Preparation

Despite the uncertainty of whether the citizenship question will be included, states and cities have already begun preparing for the Census.

Philadelphia is focusing on recruiting staff and expects to adjust its messaging as needed once the fate of the citizenship question is resolved. The city plans to launch a program in September to train 1,000 people in different languages to assist with outreach. 

“The thing we have on our side right now is time to have a good plan,” says Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts 2020. “If we spend our valuable time now worrying about things we don’t know the answers to, we squander the opportunity to really build out infrastructure and catalog where our resources are.”

At the state level, there is a wide range of money and resources being put into the Census. 

Newsom said on Thursday that he planned to sign legislation that would bring the state’s total investment in Census outreach and other activities to $187 million, far exceeding other states. In Illinois, where the count could potentially result in the loss of two of the state’s congressional seats, lawmakers budgeted $29 million earlier this month.

But in Florida, a House bill to establish a state Complete Count Committee recently failed to even get a floor vote. So far, only 16 states have passed legislation allocating funding for the 2020 Census, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures


Groups at Risk of Undercount

While much concern has focused on counting Hispanic immigrants, other segments of the population are also at risk of being undercounted.

A recent Census Bureau survey gauging attitudes toward the decennial count found non-Hispanic Asians and blacks were slightly less likely to intend to respond to the Census than Hispanics.

Separately, about 39 percent of all non-English-proficient residents and 34 percent of the foreign-born reported they were “extremely” or “very” concerned about responses being used against them.

Those fears, many officials worry, could hinder the response rate, particularly in areas with large immigrant communities. Nationally, the Pew Research Center estimates 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants reside in the United States. About 2 million live in the New York and Los Angeles metro areas. Pew’s data suggests they’re most concentrated, though, in the smaller metro areas of Gainesville, Ga.; McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas; and Salinas, Calif. 

“All stakeholders, including local governments, have to redouble efforts to engage the trusted messengers in their communities,” says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant and former member of a House committee on the Census. “If they see disinformation coming out at the local level, they need to counter it immediately.”

Lowenthal warns that certain activities, such as police raids, could heighten fears in communities. About a third of the people surveyed for a Census Bureau study incorrectly thought police and the FBI used the Census to “keep track of people who break the law.”

“Strained relationships with local agencies go well beyond immigrant communities,” Lowenthal says. “Local law enforcement, local housing authorities and other government agencies need to be very mindful of their interactions with the public during the entire period the Census is conducted.”

Historically, other groups most vulnerable to an undercount include young children, low-income households and renters.

A citizenship question last appeared on all questionnaires in the 1950 Census, which asked respondents not born in the U.S. whether they were naturalized citizens. After that, only a portion of households receiving long-form questionnaires were asked of their citizenship status beginning in 1970. The American Community Survey, which the Census Bureau sends to a limited sample of about 3.5 million households, has since replaced the long-form questionnaire.

After the ruling on Thursday, Trump indicated that he directed attorneys to attempt to delay the Census until the court has additional information.  

Census officials have long pointed to the end of this month as the deadline for when questions need to be finalized for printing of questionnaires and other materials to begin as scheduled. However, Census Bureau chief scientist John Abowd previously testified that with more resources, the deadline could be delayed up to Oct. 31.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
From Our Partners