Billions in federal funds for AZ threatened by potential census undercount

January 11, 2019 9:06 pm

Photo by Alan Stark | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

As the D.C. press corps spends the week chasing Trump’s newest shiny objects, a federal court in San Francisco began taking testimony in a suit involving what may be one of the most underreported but nationally significant story of the decade: the once-a-decade U.S. census count.

The case was brought by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and four local governments in the state. It centers on a single question proposed by the Trump Administration for the Census survey: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

What? You didn’t realize it’s almost time for the Census count to begin? Don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. It’s easy to get distracted by “bombshell” breaking news about a Congressional Democrat dropping a victory-party F-bomb, or what U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wore to her swearing-in (she wore pink).

Why is this lawsuit important? The future of all Arizonans depends on how accurately we get counted. Experts say that, for every person counted in the state, Arizona will receive about $2,000 in federal funding for education, highway construction, small business loans, grants to nonprofits, food for the poor, Medicare, farm subsidies, university research, and the list goes on. The results of the next census are also expected to earn Arizona another seat in Congress.

On the other hand, an undercount could cost Arizona hundreds of millions or even billions in federal funding over the next decade. That’s real money that comes from real people like us, the taxpayers, and we deserve our fair share.

So, what’s so hard about counting people? It’s an inherently difficult task. First, you have to find the people you want to count. That’s not so easy these days. Americans are increasingly mobile. Consider, for instance, that about 2,000 people a week move to Arizona, which now has about 7 million residents.

The accuracy of the census count also depends a lot on the questions asked, who’s posing the questions, and especially who takes the time to answer.

Which brings us to the case in San Francisco. On Monday, Colm O’Muircheartaigh, a former adviser to the Census Bureau and now a University of Chicago professor, testified that people who believe they are “vulnerable in some way” are less likely to complete the Census form. O’Muircheartaigh, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, told the judge: “The noncitizen population, and by extension much of the Latino population, feels that they’re being targeted for deleterious treatment by the federal administration,” particularly in “the last couple of years.”

You think? What Trump is doing to immigrants nationwide makes Arizona’s notoriously anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070 look like child’s play.

The biggest fear among many Latinos and others with ties to immigrant communities, and immigrants themselves, is that Trump and his merry band of xenophobes might use the data gathered in the Census to find and deport undocumented immigrants.

Census officials say federal law prevents such abuses, but that has not allayed the growing fear and suspicions of immigrants toward this administration, which has proven time and again how willing it is to scoff at the law.

For its part, the Trump administration claims it needs the data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. Voting rights advocates aren’t buying it, especially given that Republican politicians, including Trump, have spent the last several years rolling back the Voting Rights Act’s protections and imposing voter-suppression measures nationwide.

In reality, the right-wing’s cynical motivation for including the citizenship question is that immigrants tend to be people of color, and immigrants of color who are or want to be U.S. citizens tend to vote for Democrats. Trump’s goal is to stop that trend in its tracks.

The trouble with that plan, however, is that it’s nonsensical. It’s precisely the Trump Administration’s policies targeting immigrants and people of color that are inspiring millions of immigrant, women and minority voters to favor Democrats. Witness the midterm election results and predictions that the GOP is bound to lose “big league” in the 2020 elections if it sticks with its discriminatory agenda .

Arizona is now home to about 2.3 million Latinos, about a third of whom are immigrants. Since most Arizona Latinos are aren’t going anywhere, undercounting them and other people of color means the state would be left to cover the cost of future government services with fewer federal dollars.

The last time the Census included a citizenship question was in 1950, nearly a decade and a half before the passage of the historic Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts.

It’s time Arizona and our nation leaves its discriminatory legacy behind and ensure that everyone counts, and gets counted.

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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.