Expert: Census citizenship question would hurt Latino count

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SAN FRANCISCO | Asking people whether they are U.S. citizens on the 2020 census would negatively impact the undercount of Latinos and non-citizens compared with other groups, an expert in surveys said Monday at the beginning of a trial over the Trump administration’s decision to include the question for the first time in 70 years.

FILE – This March 23, 2018, file photo shows 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. A trial will begin in federal court on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in San Francisco, over the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census. (AP Photo/Michelle R. Smith, File)

Colm O’Muircheartaigh, a professor at the University of Chicago, said the question would reduce the percentage of Latinos and non-citizens who reply to the census questionnaire. He testified in federal court for California and several cities that argue that asking about citizenship is motivated by politics. The state and cities are suing the U.S. government to keep the question off the population count that is done every decade.

California has the largest number of foreign-born residents and non-citizens of any state, so an undercount would jeopardize its federal funding and congressional representation, the state said in the lawsuit.

Figures from the census are used to determine the distribution of congressional seats to states and billions of dollars in federal funding.

The U.S. Justice Department argues that census officials take steps to prevent against an undercount, including making follow-up visits in person, so the final numbers will be accurate. Households that ignore the citizenship question but otherwise fill out a substantial portion of the survey will still be counted, government attorneys said in court documents.

O’Muircheartaigh, who has served as an adviser to the Census Bureau, said the bureau’s additional measures to count those people would not “remediate the damage caused by the introduction of the citizenship question,” referring to an undercount of certain groups.

It’s the latest conflict between California and President Donald Trump’s administration, with both sides suing the other over immigration and other issues. The government has tamped down on immigration and border security, while California has some protections for immigrants in the country illegally.

U.S. Judge Richard Seeborg is scheduled to hear a week of testimony from experts and other witnesses in the census case before deciding whether to allow the question. Seeborg is the second federal judge considering the issue, with a ruling by the first judge expected soon after a trial in New York ended in November.

The Commerce Department announced the addition of a citizenship question in March, saying the Justice Department had requested it and it would improve enforcement of a 1965 law meant to protect minority voting rights.

Government attorney Carlotta Wells said in an opening statement that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross considered a range of opinions and evaluated data from census officials before making his decision.