Questionable question: Local pols and experts condemn adding citizenship question to census

Making ‘Census’ of Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Paper / Allyse Pulliam

Don’t count them out!

Immigration experts, activists, and local pols are condemning the Trump administration’s push to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 Census, noting that the inquiry could have an outsize effect on Southern Brooklyn, which is home to a high number of immigrants and people of color. One expert said the question could make many residents reluctant to participate in the census, leading to a lower overall head count — and subsequent cuts in federal funding and political representation for the area.

“If you’re interested in preserving the funding that New York State receives, communities like Southern Brooklyn are ones that everyone needs to care most about, because these are the communities that are the most vulnerable and most prone to non-participation,” said Thomas Wolf, an expert on redistricting with the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “And the moment people stop responding to the census, they basically disappear in terms of our political life because they’re no longer counted when it comes time to draw a map. If you want communities to have full voices we need to know that they’re there.”

The federal Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, said in a statement last month that adding the question — which has not been included on a census since 1950 — is necessary to determine the portion of the eligible voting population. But critics say the citizenship question could intimidate immigrants and people of color — especially those who have undocumented family members living with them — who are already under-counted because of language barriers and suspicion of the government, among other factors, according to Wolf.

“There’s always been an issue of under-reporting with certain communities — particularly immigrant groups, racial and ethnic minorities, language minorities, and particularly young children,” he said. “Adding a citizenship question is likely to only exacerbate those already existing problems.”

The most recent census data shows that Asians make up 20–30 percent of the population in the three Council districts spanning Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, and Coney Island, and that Hispanics make up about 44 percent of the population of Sunset Park and 14 percent of the other neighborhoods. A map by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center shows that parts of those neighborhoods — including parts of Coney Island, Dyker Heights, and Sunset Park — are already some of the most underrepresented and uncounted communities in the country.

Many city and borough politicians agree. Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Public Advocate Letitia James, Borough President Adams, Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–Sunset Park), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D–Borough Park), Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D–Coney Island), Councilman Carlos Menchaca (D–Sunset Park), Councilman Justin Brannan (D–Bay Ridge), and Councilman Mark Treyger (D–Coney Island) have all condemned the plan, saying it would discourage participation and act as a form of voter suppression.

Rep. Dan Donovan (R–Bay Ridge) — who has characterized President Trump as a “personal friend” — is the only local pol who has publicly supported including the citizenship question, calling it a “minor” issue and a “common sense” policy, and alleging that activists were using their concerns “as an excuse to drum up accusations of some vast conspiracy against immigrants.”

But many immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color do feel the question is targeted at them, according to the executive director of the Bay Ridge-based Arab American Association of New York, who added that the local Arab and Muslim populations also worry that the government could use citizenship information for nefarious aims.

“I think a big part for the Arab and Muslim communities in general is that there’s a mistrust of government institutions that dates back to 9-11 and the surveillance programs,” said Rama Issa-Ibrahim. “This is a community that’s constantly being attacked, and by having this question, you’re just discouraging immigrants from actually filling out the census, because there’s a fear that the government can use that information. It’s just putting a vulnerable community into a state of heightened anxiety.”

Federal law is clear that the Census Bureau can neither share personal information with other agencies, nor use that information to harm respondents or for any non-statistical purposes, according to Wolf, but including the citizenship question is problematic because it undermines the whole point of the census, he said.

“The basic purpose of the census is to count everyone — and on the basis of those headcounts, the government will divide federal funds, and the state will then take that census info to redraw census districts and legislative districts,” he said. “It all pivots off counting everyone.”

Indeed, lawsuits by several state attorneys general — including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — allege that because of its chilling effect, including the citizenship question would also undermine the Constitution, which requires that the decennial census count “the whole number of free persons” — not just citizens — in each state.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.