Cities Brace for Census With Trump’s Citizenship Question

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State and local officials were already bracing for a heavy lift in preparing for the 2020 Census, with an underfunded Census Bureau, a lack of the leadership at the agency, a climate of privacy concerns, and a distrust of the federal government exacerbated by President Trump’s rhetoric.

But the recent announcement that the survey will ask about citizenship has added yet another obstacle to getting an accurate count. Now, local officials are beginning to grapple with it.

“We are using all the tools at our disposal, but unfortunately it does seem [like] we’re swimming against the tide,” said Jorge Elorza, the mayor of Providence, where an end-to-end test run for the 2020 Census is already under way.

The Trump administration’s controversial decision to ask about citizenship was announced just as Providence was starting its test Census run, so the question wasn’t included on the test survey. But Elorza told TPM that city officials have seen signs that the announcement has had a chilling effect nonetheless.

“Many people, without even opening their Census form, became concerned when they heard that there might be a citizenship question,” Elorza said in an interview last week. Though the form telling recipients to go online to fill out their Census doesn’t reference the question, Elorza fears that recipients won’t even make it that far because they were so spooked by the news.

“Given that the news around citizenship came out right around the time [the test survey began], it muddies the water,” Elorza said. “There hasn’t been nearly [enough] communication to the community to make sure there is no confusion there.”

With less then two years to go before the 2020 Census, city and state officials and their private partners are beginning to discuss and plan for how they will un-muddy those waters. Because Census data is used to allocate federal funds and draw lines for election districts, the stakes of an undercount are extremely high — for some places, in the billions of dollars.

Immigrant communities, including those in urban areas, stand to be most affected. Former Census directors, policy wonks, civil right activists and immigration groups opposed the move to add the question, warning that it would discourage immigrants and their communities from participating in the Census, leading them to be undercounted. The Trump administration has said the question is needed to collect data for the Justice Department’s enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

In New York City, $7 billion is tied to Census data, according to deputy mayor J. Phillip Thompson. There are also more “subtle” dangers to an undercount, Thompson told TPM.

If people can’t count on the government to even tell the truth about who is living here, people tend to lose trust in government, period,” Thompson said.

The potential result, he added, is a loss of public trust in local government’s ability to handle issues like policing or housing. “Where you really need people to trust in government, having an undercount really undermines all of that,” he said. 

New York state is leading a multi-state and -city lawsuit challenging the addition of the question, and legal challenges from other cities and states are beginning to pile up.

But in the meantime, local officials are discussing how to adjust the outreach and promotion they had planned to complement the federal government’s Census campaign, so they can address specifically the risks the citizenship question poses.

The city of Los Angeles is working with its county counterparts to develop messaging-testing around the question.

“That would be focus groups, town halls that we would convene and ask people questions about their feelings toward the Census, their knowledge towards the Census, how much they know of what is going on, whether they have heard of a citizenship question,” Los Angeles Census Director Maria Garcia said.

Cities and states already are in the process of setting up what is known as complete commissions — boards of public and private representatives, including community and faith leaders — to collaborate on Census outreach. At least a few states are considering or have enacted legislation to set up complete count committees, which are also being formed at the local level. Legislation boosting state funding of Census outreach campaigns is also making its way through some statehouses.

“You can see the fight ahead of us and the need to do everything at the local level to get the count done,” said Jeff Wice, a redistricting expert the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government, who is pushing for the creation of complete count committees in New York and across the country.

Even before the controversy over the citizenship question, there was concern about the 2020 count. The Census Bureau is currently without a Senate-confirmed director. The administration’s rumored selection for its deputy director, which does not require Senate confirmation, withdrew from consideration under scrutiny for his lack of qualifications and his support of GOP redistricting efforts. After years of chronic underfunding, Congress gave the Census a major boost in funding its most recent spending deal. But Census advocates worry that it may have come too late in the 2020 planning process.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in his memo justifying the addition of the question, claimed that no one provided him evidence that the citizenship question would stop participation among people who would have otherwise filled out the full survey.  But last year the Census had assembled a preliminary report on observations from field workers, which found a shift in reactions to the question on the bureau’s American Community Survey, an ongoing survey that is far less ambitious than the decennial Census.

Census field workers said that some survey-takers would “shut down” once when they heard the citizenship. “[R]espondents’ fears, particularly among immigrant respondents, have increased markedly this year,” the report said.

Whether that effect will carry over to the decennial Census, which hasn’t included a citizenship question in many decades, is of chief concern to public and private stakeholders.

“When you modify the approach to introduce uncomfortable questions…it magnifies the difficulty that already existed,” said Todd Graham, chair of the State Data Center network, which partners with the Census Bureau to help disseminate its data. “What happens when a deliberately uncomfortable question is added? I’d like our federal partners at the Census Bureau to address this. I want to hear from them, what is the expected hit, in terms of response rates and completion rates.”

Census Bureau acting Director Ron Jarmin testified to a House subcommittee last week that the bureau has prepared an “imperfect” estimate of non-response due to the question. But Jarmin said the estimate would not be released publicly until it is made as part of the record in the ongoing lawsuits. He described it as a “not a large impact, but some impact.”

“It would be the response of subgroups that would matter,” Jarmin said, later adding that, “it could be, in some communities, important.”

Already, local officials are focusing on messaging that will stress the privacy protections on the data Census collects. By law, the bureau can’t share data it collects on a personal level with other agencies. And it only releases publicly what’s known as “block-level” data.

Local officials also hope that having community leaders deliver that message will help rebuild the bridges of trust that have been burnt by the Trump administration’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

Mesa, Arizona Mayor John Giles, however, pointed to the Trump administration’s move to rescind the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which allowed young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to register for deportation protections — as a major hurdle in convincing immigrant communities to participate.

“We invited the immigrant community to come out of the shadows with assurance that if they trusted us with their information, that there wouldn’t be negative consequence. And that proved to be exactly the opposite of the truth,” Giles told TPM.

Trump’s DACA wind-down has been temporarily blocked by the courts, but deportations are still feared for current recipients, and the program’s overall future is in doubt.

With the 2020 Census, Giles said, “We are trying to convince people that this time we mean it when we say you’re not put at risk if you share information with us.”

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