Hispanic Caucus vows to stop Census citizenship question ‘at all costs’

Rep. Norma Torres, D-California, joined Congressional Hispanic Caucus members who vowed to fight a plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. “We need to understand … how one question can alter political authority,” said Torres, whose district was created after the 2010 Census. (Photo by Kyley Schultz/Cronkite News)

The 2020 Census is still two years off, but the form has to be finalized this spring, and testing started last month in Providence, Rhode Island. The bureau’s plan to include a citizenship question on the form has upset advocates who fear it will lead to an undercount in immigrant and minority communities. (Photo courtesy U.S. Census Bureau)

WASHINGTON – The Congressional Hispanic Caucus said Wednesday it will block plans “at any and all costs” to ask a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, calling the proposal a “blatant intimidation attack” on minorities.

The question, last asked on the 1950 Census, will only dissuade immigrants from participating, shortchanging those communities in future congressional representation and allocation of federal funds, the critics said.

“The Census is not some trivial survey – it is used for the allocation of $700 billion in federal funding,” said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York. “If you don’t fill out that form, you don’t exist. Which means less money that goes to our congressional districts, which impacts everyone involved.”

The Commerce Department, the Census Bureau’s parent agency, announced last month that it was adding the citizenship question to help collect block-level data that the Justice Department said it needs to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

In making the announcement, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acknowledged concerns that a citizenship question could lead to an undercount in minority communities. But he said the bureau’s analysis of the issue found that “no empirical data existed on the impact of citizenship question on responses.”

That was challenged by Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-California, who said Wednesday that caucus members warned Ross they have already seen an impact among immigrants from “this administration’s immigration enforcement tactics and the rhetoric.”

Arizona has seen it happen before, said Petra Falcon, founder of immigrant advocacy group Promise Arizona. She said response to the 2010 Census in the state was depressed by SB 1070, the get-tough immigration enforcement law at the time that let local police ask the citizenship status of anyone they stopped.

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“We had many people terrified to open the door because they did not want the added hostility,” Falcon said. “The Census is intended to calculate how many people – citizens or not – are in a specific area and address common need, not skew data methodically.”

Falcon said it’s not just a concern for minority communities: The loss of funds and congressional representation that could come from including a citizenship question will affect everyone in the state, she said.

“The question is going to greatly impact money in Arizona for everyone, not just immigrants, because those who do not answer the question will not be considered in overall numbers,” Falcon said. “The more people who are not calculated in districts means less money for the districts to address critical needs like infrastructure and other issues.”

Caucus members worried that a low response rate will also affect congressional representation after House districts are reapportioned using the results of the 2020 count. Rep. Norma Torres, D-California, said her district was created as a result of the 2010 Census results.

“We need to understand the magnitude of how one question can alter political authority,” Torres said. “Without an accurate Census count, it is difficult for community leaders to make decisions on how to better allocate resources for public safety, disaster response, assistance for our veterans.”

Arizona, with a population that topped 7 million in 2017, is likely to pick up a 10th House seat after 2020, Falcon said, but she worries that an undercount could keep that from happening.

“We need the correct data in order to have the right amount of leadership moving forward, so we can address these crucial conversations both in Arizona and in Washington, D.C.,” Falcon said.

Several states have already gone to court to keep the Trump administration from putting the citizenship question on the census form, arguing that such a move is unconstitutional.

Calls seeking comment Wednesday from the Census Bureau were directed to the Commerce Department, which did not immediately respond.

But Velazquez said the administration should prepare for a fight on the issue.

“We are not going to let this administration inject hatred and prejudice into one of the most basic democratic functions,” she said. “Just as we blocked Trump’s Muslim ban in the courts we are going to fight this move to distort our Census in the court.”