WASHINGTON – Census data shapes almost every corner of public life, like the amount of federal money funneled to school lunch programs, new bus routes and rural health clinics. And for Arizona, the 2020 Census will determine whether the state gets a 10th congressional seat.
As the country barrels toward the 2020 Census, the Supreme Court must decide if the upcoming decennial count can include a question left unasked for more than seven decades: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
The question, the constitutionality of which was debated before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, could have sizeable consequences for Arizona’s federal funding and political representation, census experts said.
The U.S. Constitution stipulates that the government must count every person in the country each decade, regardless of citizenship status. A question about respondent’s citizenship has been asked in the past, but in recent decades has been asked of only a small sample.
Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts Campaign for the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, is concerned that adding a citizenship question, simple as it may sound, will undermine a fair and accurate census count. Noncitizens would be discouraged from participating based on a fear that they would be identified and possibly deported, she said.
“When communities don’t receive their fair share of political representation, that undermines their ability to live a safe, healthy and equitable life,” Lynk said. “The census has to be fair and it has to be accurate. Otherwise, it subverts what our very democracy stands for.”
Losing a seat at the table
The government uses population data calculated by the census to draw states’ congressional districts and determine the appropriate number of representatives they should have.
According to Election Data Services, Arizona is one of a dozen states that stands to lose a congressional seat if a census undercount occurs. A lost seat means less sway in Washington.
The federal government distributes about $880 billion to local, state and tribal governments based on census data.
For every 1 percent of the population uncounted in the last census, the state of Arizona lost an estimated $56 million of federal funding, or $887 per person, according to a report by the George Washington Institute for Public Policy.
“We know that it is absolutely vital that we do get an accurate count, because it dictates our share of federal resources,” said Albert Santana, census director in Phoenix. He said an accurate count is critical for Head Start programs, housing, roads, public safety and more.
“It’s a lifeline to services we provide daily to the municipality and the people who live in the city,” he said. His team has tried to be proactive and work with community partners to start “building trust and awareness” between residents and the city.
John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and chair on the Census Advisory Committee said the funding lost by an undercount won’t just affect noncitizens who choose not to be counted.
“If you have an undercount in a community, then that [entire] community won’t get those resources. Here, we’re not just talking about immigrants, because immigrants are part of every single community,” he said. “Even citizens are going to get less resources in these regions because people in their community are missed.”
The citizenship question, if included, would not be the only change to the decennial census. Residents will be able to respond online or by phone too.
“Being that this is something new, [we’re] trying to find ways to bridge any digital divides [by] putting resources in place and doing it in the most equitable way possible,” Santana said.
The road to the highest court
Supreme Court justices fired queries at government officials and civil rights attorneys during oral arguments April 23 in a lawsuit challenging the citizenship question, Department of Commerce v. New York.
Last year, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced his plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, despite recommendations from the Census Bureau not to add the question.
Research by the bureau indicated a high probability of error if the census included a citizenship question, a Census Bureau memo stated. And preliminary tests of the question revealed it would likely result in inaccurate data.
According to the Census Bureau, the addition of the question could result in an undercount of 6.5 million or more people. Half a dozen former Census Bureau directors opposed the question.
Civil rights advocates said census participants, particularly immigrants and communities of color, would fear giving their personal citizenship status to the government and elect not to participate.
Matthew Tragesser, who works for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization working to severely restrict immigration, is not convinced that the addition of a citizenship question would have a chilling effect on undocumented U.S. residents.
“The census surveys are conducted anonymously, and federal law protects the confidentiality of respondents,” he said.
But Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said the fear held by some immigrants is justified, especially considering instances when the U.S. government has discriminated against immigrants and communities of color.
“It is understandable that people are going to be fearful of what the government’s agencies’ actual intent is,” Yang said.
The lawsuit before the Supreme Court merged a flurry of lawsuits filed since Ross’ decision to override the Census Bureau’s recommendations and add the citizenship question to the census. The State of New York was joined by 16 states in filing the first lawsuit against the administration.
Federal district courts in California, Maryland and New York have ruled that Ross did not legally implement the question and therefore the citizenship question cannot be included.
The Supreme Court will likely issue a final ruling in June.