Supreme Court Census Citizenship Question

An envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident as part of the nation’s only test run of the 2020 Census.

BOISE — As the Supreme Court reviews a Department of Justice request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census, policy experts and advocates warn the change could negatively affect Idaho.

The 2020 decennial census officially kicks off April 1, 2020, part of a constitutionally mandated tradition to count every person living in the U.S. every 10 years.

There’s a lot riding on an accurate census count of every resident — not just citizen — in each area of the country at the time of the 2020 Census. Census counts determine congressional representation, Voting Rights Act enforcement, state legislative boundaries and the best way to divide more than $675 billion in federal funding toward housing, roads, medical care, emergency response services and more.

Idaho receives about $2.4 billion annually from 16 federal programs that use the census to determine funding, according to George Washington University analysis. Although there’s not a “straight, linear relationship” between state population count and federal funds flow, that’s about $1,473 for each Idaho resident.

Idaho is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, with a quarter of that growth from the Hispanic community. If a citizenship question is added to the census, Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, believes it would lead to a significant Hispanic undercount for Idaho as a whole and in specific counties with large Hispanic populations.

“Families already have a sense of mistrust, specifically with government,” Gonzalez said.

Even residents who have legal status may be reluctant to fill out the census survey if they think it could draw attention to their friends or family members who are undocumented, according to a 2017 memorandum published by the Census Bureau. Others may decide to give false responses for the same reason.

“One Spanish-speaking respondent said she was uncomfortable ‘registering’ other household members and tried to exit the survey at the dashboard when she realized she would have to provide information on others who live with her,” wrote Center for Survey Measurement staff in the September 2017 memo to the Census Bureau’s Directorate for Research and Methodology. “She mentioned being afraid because of the current political climate and news reports about changing immigration policy.”

Idaho experts are watching with concern the current legal battle over the Trump Administration’s request to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census. Last year, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross decided to add the citizenship question to the survey, according to the Associated Press. Ross did so against the advice of officials at the Census Bureau, saying the Justice Department requested the question to improve Voting Rights Act enforcement.

Since then, federal courts have ruled the addition violates federal law and the Constitution. The Supreme Court decided in February to hear the Trump Administration’s appeal of the rulings, according to the Associated Press. Arguments are scheduled to begin this month.

“We understand that some people will be apprehensive about answering the citizenship question,” Virginia Hyer, a U.S. Census Bureau spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the Idaho Press. “However, over the years, the decennial census has asked questions about country of birth, citizenship, and naturalization status of respondents. The citizenship question for 2020 does not ask about legal status — only whether respondents are citizens or not.”

Census Bureau employees have also “sworn for life” to protect the confidentiality of answers to census data, Hyer said, as answers can only be used to create statistics.

“By law, the Census Bureau does not share respondents’ answers with law enforcement agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, IRS, FBI, CIA,” Hyer wrote.

The last time the U.S. Census Bureau asked every respondent a question about citizenship on the decennial census was in 1950. The proposed question would use the same phrasing as the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which is conducted annually. But experts worry the addition will make it less likely people from Latino or immigrant communities will participate, leading to an inaccurate count.

“Those concerns are elevated in states that have had huge growths in their Hispanic population and the immigrant population — and Idaho would definitely be on the receiving end of this,” said Gabe Osterhout from the Idaho Policy Institute. “Many people in Idaho might just assume that something like this would just affect California or New York, which they might not have a problem with that. But when people realize it hits closer to home, that could be more of an issue.”

The impact of the rapid growth of Idaho’s Hispanic community

For two years in a row, the Census Bureau has ranked Idaho as one of the fastest-growing states in the country, along with Nevada. Hispanics accounted for 26 percent of Idaho’s growth from 2010-17, according to the McClure Center for Public Policy Research’s analysis of Census Bureau data.

Its March 2019 report on Idaho’s Hispanic population found that the Hispanic population grew more than 30 percent in 16 Idaho counties. Without the continued growth of the Hispanic population in Bingham, Cassia, Idaho, Jerome, Minidoka and Payette counties, those counties would have decreased in overall population from 2010-17.

“Idaho’s population has grown so much since 2010,” Osterhout said. “If you have the (citizenship) question, my biggest fear is that it won’t look like the state has grown much. We’ll receive the same amount of federal aid that we had previously with a smaller population, which is a real strain on state resources.”

For example, a citizenship question could change the amount of federal funding meant to help Idaho children.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the 2010 census undercounted Latino children under 5 years of age by 7.5 percent. The foundation also estimates that 3 percent, or roughly 3,000 Idaho children, live in hard-to-count census tracts.

That’s far fewer than states like New Mexico, where 52 percent of children under 5 live in hard-to-count areas. But it would still affect the federal funding Idaho receives for child programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Title I education funding, the school lunch program, grants for special education, Head Start and Early Head Start, foster care assistance and the Child Care and Development Fund.

Other negative impacts of incorrect counts for Idaho Latinos

In Canyon County, election officials also expect their growing Hispanic population will make them the second Idaho county mandated to provide voting materials in both English and Spanish. Even though Canyon County has the largest Latino population in the state, only Lincoln County in the Magic Valley is constitutionally mandated to provide voting information and ballots in both English and Spanish, because the Census data found more than 10,000 U.S. citizens of voting age in a single language group, a population more than 5 percent of all voting-age citizens, or a high illiteracy rate.

Still, Canyon County’s growing Latino population means more citizens are requesting Spanish assistance at the polls. In the November 2018 election, county election officials had to reverse a ban on poll workers speaking Spanish to voters after an Idaho Press report revealed there was no state law supporting the ban.

“When we look at what’s happening with changing the census, it’s clear that we need an accurate census count for Idaho,” said Antonio Hernandez, a voting rights associate focused on Latino voter engagement for Conservation Voters for Idaho. “Besides language access, this dictates our congressional districts. ... Given the racial disparity of the history of voting rights in the U.S., this demographic data is extremely important to voting rights.”

Hernandez said many Idaho Latinos who speak Spanish as a first language are interested in being civically engaged but would feel more comfortable participating if they could get information in Spanish. If a citizenship question does create an undercount of Canyon County Latinos and subsequent failure to reach the Census requirements for Spanish voting materials, Hernandez said, many Canyon County citizens could be locked out of the democratic process.

“The bottom line is, if there are people in these counties who are eligible to vote, it should not be on this nonprofit or that nonprofit to provide those resources,” Hernandez said. “If it’s not the federal government providing assistance, then who does it fall to?”

Osterhout from the Idaho Policy Institute said he wasn’t sure if the average person understands the importance of correct Census data — or the negative impacts of an undercount. As a researcher for the Idaho Policy Institute, Osterhout uses census data about housing or demographics to help cities like Nampa create their comprehensive plans. Often, his access to Census Bureau data means he knows more about the city than city officials. If that information is inaccurate, Osterhout said, cities and counties in Idaho might not adequately plan for the future.

“It’s not like an academic hobby, why I’m concerned,” Osterhout said. “I’m concerned because there are real-life consequences. Cities, counties, the state could be strapped for resources for at least a decade because of unintended or intended consequences of asking the citizenship question.”

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