Severe Census undercounts feared

To intimidate and instill fear — these are the purposes local advocates and officials say are behind the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census questionnaire.

“It’s in the constitution that every person be counted, and anything this Congress would do to scare people away from being counted would undermine their own constitutional responsibility,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, or NALEO.

Vargas was referring to the U.S. Commerce Department confirming Monday that it would be reinstating a citizenship status question in the census, according to a news release.

The department’s website states that the question’s reinstatement will “help enforce the Voting Rights Act.”

The news comes nearly four months after the Department of Justice requested in a letter dated Dec. 12, 2017, that the commerce department include the question.

“ This data is critical to the department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting,” the DOJ letter states.

The request was met with a response from 19 attorneys general who signed a letter urging the Department of Commerce to reject the citizenship status question, citing the potential that it would lead to serious undercounts in regions of the country where large immigrant communities reside.

“Adding a citizenship question — especially at such a late date in the 2020 Census planning process — would significantly depress participation, causing a population undercount that would disproportionately harm states and cities with large immigrant communities,” the letter reads in part.

Following the commerce department’s announcement Monday, California filed suit against the Trump administration, echoing what the nearly 20 attorneys general said in January — that the inclusion of the question will disproportionally affect large immigrant communities and lead to undercounted people.

The announcement also comes a month after members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, Hidalgo County officials and NALEO representatives met in Alamo to discuss strategies for getting a “full count,” during the 2020 census.

During the NALEO presentation, Vargas said that 2 percent of all Latinos were not counted in the 2010 census, meaning less political representation and millions of dollars in resources for crucial programs that serve vulnerable populations.

Vargas, who implored the government to “do its job,” with respect to counting all peoples during the census count, said any question that would deter people from being counted would be unconstitutional.

Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, in a statement released Tuesday morning, said he was disappointed with the decision.

“It is clear that this is an intimidation tactic and an attempt to suppress participation in the upcoming Census,” Gonzalez said in the statement. “This action could penalize communities with low response rates, large immigrant populations, and a history of being undercounted.”

Programs such as Medicaid and Head Start, would be severely underfunded if the counts were not complete, Vargas said.

Opponents of the decision argue that if the question remains on the form, Texas and other border states with large immigrant populations could be undercounted — potentially exacerbating already disproportionally undercounted people.

Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Union Del Pueblo Entero — or LUPE, a local immigrant advocacy group — said convincing a vulnerable population to answer citizenship-related questions would severely hamper efforts to get a complete count.

Valdez-Cox said the announcement Monday left her wondering what the administration’s motivation would be to add such a question.

She said it appears the Trump administration does not want to count immigrants. Ultimately, she said if the counts are inaccurate there will be less representation for those who need it.

“This is a way of keeping the state in the hands of conservatives,” Valdez-Cox said.

She said as a result of the decision, advocacy groups will monitor the California lawsuit and meet with attorneys about how to best educate their local communities with regard to the census form.

Valdez-Cox said despite the news she expects LUPE and RGV EVN member groups will continue to help educate people in their respective communities about new developments with respect to the census.

In a prepared statement RGV EVN officials said the decision amounted to a direct attack on border communities.

“The United States has a constitutional obligation to count all persons in the U.S. regardless of income level, race or immigration status,” the release states. “The census determines critical issues for our region like representation in Congress and allocation of resources for social services. Numerous past census directors, both Republican and Democratic, have chosen not to add this question to the census. The current administration is ignoring the wisdom and bipartisan leadership of these past directors.”

Echoing Valdez-Cox’s sentiment RGV EVN officials stated they would continue in their efforts to promote community participation and document issues that they encounter as the census process moves forward.