The Census Will Ask A Question It Already Knows Spooks Immigrant Communities

Wilbur Ross speaks during the CBI Conference CBI conference, London, United Kingdom - 06 Nov 2017 (Rex Features via AP Images)

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross didn’t have to look far to find evidence that asking for one’s citizenship — as he announced Monday that the 2020 Census would do — could depress participation.

The Bureau itself said as much in an internal research report presented last fall, based on the experience of Census field workers. According to one worker, a Spanish-speaking respondent who admitted to her when she asked that he was not a citizen, later lied about his country of origin, “shut down” when she asked when he entered the country, and walked out of his apartment where she was conducting the survey.

Several other accounts in the report likewise pointed to a potential chilling effect of asking about citizenship.

Yet Ross — in a move that is being roundly criticized by former Census officials, policy wonks and civil rights groups — granted a request by the Justice Department  to include the question in the upcoming decennial survey, despite the Bureau having almost no time to test the effect of such an addition.

The repercussions of depressed Census participation are far reaching. Among other impacts, the communities that are undercounted will see their representation shrink in congressional apportionment, in the Electoral College and in how state and local legislative districts are drawn.

In his memo defending the move, Ross claimed that “no one provided evidence that reinstating a citizenship question on the decennial census would materially decrease response rates among those who generally distrusted government and government information collection efforts, disliked the current administration, or feared law enforcement.”

Some of those very stakeholders quickly rejected that justification.

“It’s the Secretary’s job — not stakeholders’ job — to assure there is thorough, rigorous research and testing that the question will not affect the level and truthfulness of responses,” Vanita Gupta, the former head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, who now leads the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Legally, the Census is prohibited from turning over any personal data to the Department of Homeland Security or other agencies to pursue non-citizens. But civil rights groups worry that the perception created by including such a question could depress response rates in minority communities.

“Congress basically understood that privacy and confidentiality are absolutely necessary in order for people to participate fully in the Census, so they created these protections to be the strongest protections for personal information that exist in federal law,”  Thomas Wolf, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, told TPM. “But not everyone knows that. So some of people’s concerns about participating come from a less-than-full knowledge about, both, what the Census is supposed to be used for, and the kinds of legal protection that exist to encourage them to participate.”

In even the best environment, adding questions without proper testing and messaging can confuse survey-takers and discourage participation. But the addition of this question is coming as the Trump administration has ramped up anti-immigration policies and the president himself has spewed anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“In the context of various expressed views of the Trump administration, and particularly Trump, about immigration, I think it might chill the participation in the Census of the immigrant community, not just necessarily the citizens but everyone living there,” said Andrew Beveridge, a sociologist and demographics expert at CUNY.

The 2017 report presented by the Census for an advisory panel detailed encounters field workers had with respondents last year.

Field workers reported facing a “new phenomenon” of fears, particularly among immigrant respondents.

In another incident, a field worker observed some Hispanics literally moving out of their mobile home park where she had left information and started interviews, “because they were afraid of being deported,” she told the researchers.

“They literally had people walk out of the room of survey because they were fearful of these questions that were being raised,” John Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said on the press call with reporters. “The data itself, that the Census Bureau has, suggests that this issue is sensitive and must be treated carefully.”

The chilling effect does not just implicate non-citizens, but those who are related or living with them. According to Yang,  over 90 percent of Asian Americans — the fastest growing community in the U.S. — are immigrants or children of immigrants.

In addition to the direct impact on representation, citizenship data could also be used to push for  districts that are drawn based on citizen population rather than total population, in an end-run a around recent Supreme Court decision validating the counting of all persons for legislative districts.

In an amicus brief for that Supreme Court case, Evenwel v Abbot, four former Census directors argued that adding the citizenship question to the Census “would likely exacerbate privacy concerns and lead to inaccurate responses from non-citizens worried about a government record of their immigration status.”

Then there are repercussions for how federal resources are doled out, from Medicaid and food stamps to highway constructions and education grants.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said his group would be encouraging Latinos to participate in the Census as a way to defy the Trump’s administration’s attempts to undercount their communities.

“Donald Trump doesn’t want you counted. Make sure you are counted. They’re handing us the messaging,” Saenz told TPM. “In the end it might backfire on them. But I am absolutely convinced that this was their intention: They want a Latino undercount.”

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