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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Critics Say Citizenship Question on Census Could Lead to Undercount

This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

For the first time in more than half a century, the decennial census will ask respondents to indicate whether they’re a U.S. citizen or not — a move that critics in Pennsylvania say would discourage immigrants from participating and result in an undercount of the population in 2020.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s announcement this week — pinning Democrats, immigration advocates and census experts against the Republican-led administration — has injected controversy into an American staple that does more than just survey each household every 10 years, but helps decide how electoral maps are drawn and federal funding is allocated. Experts and opponents worry it would unfairly harm regions with large immigrant populations, like Allegheny County, which has about 37,000 foreign-born residents, according to estimates.

"This is the wrong time to have people even more afraid to fill out a census form than they might already be," said Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey, suggesting it could have a chilling effect on responses from the legal immigrant population, as well as those who are undocumented.

In reinstituting a question that hasn’t been included on the decennial census since 1950, the commerce department, which oversees the U.S. Census Bureau, has argued it will help the Department of Justice enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters. In a memo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the question would give the justice department “citizenship voting age population” data to use. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed that argument — that it would help “protect voters” — in a briefing Tuesday.

But enough dissent could have an impact on the department, which has until Saturday to submit a final list of census questions to Congress.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Tuesday he plans to take legal action “to ensure an accurate count of all Pennsylvania residents and fair distribution of federal funding,” joining a handful of other state law enforcement heads threatening to sue the administration over the question. Mr. Shapiro, a Democrat who has joined suits against the Trump administration before, called the inclusion of the question “unlawful.”

“It is arbitrary and capricious and violates the Trump Administration’s constitutional obligation to ensure the accuracy of the 2020 census,” Mr. Shapiro wrote in a statement, adding that the U.S. Constitution requires a full and accurate count of “all persons residing in America.”

Mr. Shapiro was one of 19 state attorneys general who wrote a letter to the commerce secretary in February, urging the department to reject the addition of the question. 

Immigration experts fear that a citizenship question could intimidate non-citizens and legal immigrants from filling out the survey. Sheila Vélez Martínez, professor of asylum, refugee and immigration law at the University of Pittsburgh, said the administration’s decision “feeds anti-immigrant sentiment” in a political atmosphere that has already made things tough for immigrants.

Ms.Velez Martinez said it would have broad implications for mixed-status families — like those in which a legal permanent resident is married to an undocumented immigrant. Mr. Frey, too, said those here legally may not want to participate if they have relatives in the U.S. illegally, for whom they fear repercussions. At the same time, Mr. Frey said, population counts could become less accurate if parents who are in the country illegally, but who have children born as U.S. citizens, opt to ignore the census due to deportation worries.

"The Census Bureau has done what it could through the years to assure people that nothing is going to happen to them" by participating in the population count, Mr. Frey observed, "but that's not really a good enough thing to say now to people who are very scared in this political environment.”

The commerce department’s announcement angered some Congressional Democrats, like U.S. Rep Mike Doyle of Forest Hills, who called it “pretty obviously politically motivated.”

“I think it’s pretty clear what the intent is here, and the intent is to suppress the count, in urban areas, which tend to be democratic, and which tend to affect how districts are drawn and how federal funds are distributed,” Mr. Doyle said in an interview Tuesday.

Mr. Doyle warned that funding for programs in urban areas would be shortchanged, including money for Pell Grants and the Children's Health Insurance Program — which he said use census data for allocation.

Without an accurate count, the government wouldn’t be able to assess how to best allocate resources for infrastructure, education and transportation, said Chris Carson, president of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. In a statement, Mr. Carson called the decision a “blatant political maneuver meant to disenfranchise” immigrants and deny them equal representation.

Julian Routh: [email protected], 412-263-1952, Twitter @julianrouth.