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Census Citizenship Question to Push NJ’s Undocumented into Shadows?

New Jersey will join multistate lawsuit against federal government to prevent question from being included on next decennial census

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The decision by the U.S. Census Bureau to ask 2020 census respondents whether they’re citizens of the United State could become a huge problem for New Jersey, as well as other states with large immigrant populations, as it could lead to a loss of federal aid, a seat in Congress, or both.

Thus, Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Tuesday that the state would join a multistate lawsuit against the federal government to block the inclusion of the question on the next decennial census.

Census population counts are used both to distribute many types of federal aid and to reapportion the 436 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The aim is to give states proportional representation based on population. State officials, civil rights advocates, and several former directors of the census say that asking whether a person is a citizen will likely prompt many undocumented immigrants to decide not to fill out the survey. That would lead to undercounting the actual population, which in New Jersey has just surpassed 9 million for the first time.

“By injecting a citizenship question into the census, the Trump administration is seeking to sow fear among immigrant communities and inject uncertainty into what should be a nonpartisan process,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement. “The Constitution requires and the nation overwhelmingly needs an accurate and unassailable count. If New Jersey residents are afraid to be counted, it will have an impact on our ability to be properly represented in Congress and adequately funded when it comes to vital federal programs.”

Delivering accurate data

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Monday that the question of citizenship is being reinstated — it appeared on most decennial censuses between 1820 and 1950 — at the request of the Department of Justice, which contends the information is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act. According to a memo from Ross, the DOJ says that current data is “insufficient in scope, detail and certainty” to ensure it can enforce Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race and other conditions. Ross said that asking about citizenship will enable the U.S. Census Bureau “to provide a complete and accurate decennial census.”

But critics contend it is just another way the Trump administration is seeking to intimidate undocumented immigrants and give Republicans greater representation in the House because the states with the largest immigrant populations tend to be blue states.

“Asking about immigration in the census is an intimidation tactic with no purpose besides chilling immigrants’ participation and further vilifying immigrant communities,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “The collection of this information without knowing how it could be used is an especially terrifying prospect in the context of this presidential administration — an administration that openly denigrates immigrants, from undocumented parents to green-card holders, and that has ramped up deportations and detentions, especially here in New Jersey.”

“The census is the basis upon which the federal government determines how we draw our electoral boundaries and distribute essential funding — and it should not be used as a political tool,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union). “By including this question, this Administration is politicizing the census and hurting urban communities for the next decade.”

Counting undocumented immigrants

New Jersey currently has 12 members of the House and has lost three seats since 1983 as the state’s population, which now tops an estimated 9 million for the first time, has grown at a slower rate than that of other states. According to census data, about 12 percent of New Jerseyans are immigrants who became citizens, while 10 percent emigrated here but have not become citizens. That latter figure, which represents more than 912,000 people should include undocumented immigrants (estimated as about 500,00), but the census does not ask a person’s immigration status.

"We don’t need a citizenship question on the 2020 census,” said Gurbir Grewal, the state’s attorney general. “The reality is that such a question would only do harm … Particularly in the current national climate, a citizenship question will obviously cause great consternation and discourage participation in the census. That lack of participation will inevitably have far-reaching, negative effects — particularly in New Jersey, where we have the third-largest immigrant population in the country.”

The impending multistate lawsuit, which is to be led by New York’s attorney general, will name the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Census Bureau as defendants. It will assert that the addition of the citizenship question would violate the U.S. Constitution and would threaten the fair representation of states with large immigrant communities in Congress and the Electoral College and cost those states billions of dollars in federal funds for programs such as Medicaid.

Adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, which four census directors appointed by presidents from both parties have advised against, would limit participation in the census among immigrants. That lack of participation would inevitably result in a population undercount that will disproportionately harm states and cities with large immigrant communities. Noncitizens are counted in the census for purposes of federal funds, the apportioning of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, and the drawing of state and local districts.

Rather than helping boost rights under the Voting Rights Act, Grewal said the question would do the opposite. By muting participation in the census in immigrant communities, the resulting undercount would deprive these communities of fair representation when legislative seats are apportioned and district lines are drawn.

“Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add a widely criticized question about citizenship status in the 2020 U.S. Census is yet another example of Trump administration reforms, steeped in white supremacist values, that are meant to divide us and harm communities of color,” said Kevin Brown, vice president and New Jersey State director of the 163,000-member 32BJ SEIU union of property service workers. “This is a clear attempt to intimidate immigrants and working class people of color, while also providing a means to disenfranchise and deprive these communities of the resources they rely on.”

Getting a count of voters

If the DOJ needs a count of eligible voters, it can use the citizenship information provided by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which is based on population samples, rather than an exact count, contend the attorneys general. Ross said, however, that the ACS — which the DOJ and the courts currently use to enforce the Voting Rights Act — does not provide citizenship information down to the block level, the smallest geographic level for which the Census Bureau collects data.

Sinha said immigrants would be right to worry about answering the citizenship question, given how that information was used in the past.

“Information gathered from the census has been abused before, and it can be abused again,” he said. “Census data directly facilitated the roundups and internment of Japanese-Americans, one of the most shameful periods in American civil rights. Tacking this question onto the census would go down among those ranks of low moments in our history.”

New Jersey’s two Democratic U.S. Senators, Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, are among those who have introduced a bill barring this question from the census.

State representatives are trying to stop the question, as well. Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Sen. James Beach (D-Camden) have sponsored resolutions in their respective houses urging the state’s congressional representatives to oppose any measure that would include a census questionnaire with a citizenship question.

“I am appalled by the Trump administration’s decision,” Greenwald said. “This anti-immigrant policy will have a detrimental effect on the accuracy of the decennial census count, and inspire fear within immigrant communities. We see how this fear affects communities across the nation already, when in the 2010 census nearly 1.5 million people of color were not counted.”

Greenwald’s legislation (ACR-121), is awaiting action by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, while the companion Senate measure (SCR-55) has already passed the Senate on a mostly party line vote and is also pending before the Assembly committee.

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