California has a lot to lose if the 2020 census undercounts the state’s population. The U.S. Commerce Department’s decision this week to include a controversial citizenship question on the decennial count of the country’s population is ratcheting up fears that the state could lose billions in funding, services, and even a congressional seat after the next census.
In a statement released Monday night, Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that, per a December request from the Justice Department, “a question on citizenship status will be reinstated to the 2020 decennial census questionnaire to help enforce the Voting Rights Act.”
“Secretary Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts,” the statement continued.
The decision comes as a blow to civil rights and immigrant advocates, who have been warning for months that such a question will only fan fears among communities already tense from a flurry of ICE raids and anti-immigrant rhetoric under President Donald Trump.
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“Given President Trump’s toxic rhetoric and aggressive policies toward immigrants, it’s clear his administration wants to include this question to discourage participation in immigrant communities,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. “This is particularly troubling in states like California with high immigrant populations. Without an accurate census, our state will lose federal funding for infrastructure, schools and social welfare programs we are rightly owed.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has already filed a lawsuit to prevent the Trump administration from including the question. He said the move “threatens to derail the integrity of the entire process...Including a citizenship question on the 2020 census is not just a bad idea – it is illegal.”
Given its diverse demographics and large number of foreign-born residents, California has a particularly high concentration of what are known as “hard-to-count” populations, said John Dobard, Associate Director of Political Voice at Advancement Project California. They include immigrants, people of color, low-income people, renters, children and those with limited English language proficiency (among others). According to a recent report from the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), about 75 percent of all Californians – or 30.2 million people – belonged to one or more of these groups in 2016.
Those types of residents are less likely to respond to the census questionnaires, and thus are more likely to be left out of the data that the federal government uses to parcel out funding for programs and services statewide and locally.
Dobard and the Advancement Project are heading a coalition of 15 California-based organizations working with the state and local leaders to conduct outreach and encourage people to participate in the coming census. Gov. Jerry Brown has requested $40.3 million for census outreach in his proposed state budget released in January.
The census data is also used to apportion congressional districts and draw district lines for Congress, as well as the state Legislature. California is at risk of losing a congressional seat for the first time in history, due to its slowing population growth.
Within California, however, some regions have seen their populations shoot up rapidly since the last count in 2010. Capturing that growth in the census will be critical both for their representation and federal funding they receive. According to PPIC’s analysis, they include the city of Fresno, Orange County, Riverside County and San Diego County as well as parts of the South and East Bay Area, spreading into San Joaquin and Stanislaus Counties.
Counting people in areas with a surge in population is tricky, says Sarah Bohn, a research fellow at PPIC who headed up the census report. Local governments are responsible for having up-to-date address lists, which Bohn calls “the first step” of an accurate census. And she notes that many of the areas with high growth are “the same areas where the housing crisis is the most severe,” leading people to double up in homes and apartments or other non-traditional housing arrangements. That makes them less likely to be included in the count.
When you add in the fact that many of those regions also have large Latino populations, the undercount risk rises. That’s particularly the case in the South and East Bay, Fresno, Riverside County and San Diego County. Latino and immigrant rights advocates worry that the climate of fear permeating immigrant communities, particularly since the 2016 election, make those groups even less likely to share their personal information with the government.
Those concerns will be “deeply exacerbated by the addition of this (citizenship) question,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Question on Civil Rights, who warned that with its inclusion, “you really are at risk of sabotaging the census.”
Ross disputed that in his statement and an accompanying memo rationalizing the decision. “The citizenship question has been well tested,” he argued, pointing out that it has been included in the American Community Survey, a survey of a small percentage of the population that is conducted annually by the Census Bureau. “While there is widespread belief among many parties that adding a citizenship question could reduce response rates, the Census Bureau’s analysis did not provide definitive, empirical support for that belief,” said Ross.
Becerra said the Trump administration’s move violates the U.S. Constitution because it could “diminish response rates” and undermine the federal requirement to count every California resident regardless of immigration status.
“Given the way that this administration has attacked immigrants, you can understand why immigrant families would be afraid to fill out the Census questionnaire,” Becerra said. “If California loses representation, we could lose votes.”
Secretary of State Alex Padilla said an undercount could lead to “several million” people not being counted in California.
“The Trump administration’s decision last night rolls back the clock on civil rights and voting rights in America,” Padilla said, adding it’s the latest move in “the president’s blatant agenda to fan the flames of anti-immigrant hostility.”
Angela Hart of The Bee state Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.