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Booker Leads NJ Opposition to Census Question on Citizenship

Senator calls proposal ‘shameful attempt to inject nativist, bigoted politics’ into population count. New Jersey groups mobilize to stop it

Cory Booker
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is leading the call for New Jerseyans to speak out against the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. census, calling it a politically motivated attempt at reducing the state’s clout and federal aid.

The call by the Democrat and civil, immigrant and voting rights activists came yesterday as federal officials released new documents in a multistate suit against the question brought by New Jersey, New York and several other states. Those documents indicate that the decision to include a citizenship question originated with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and not with the U.S. Justice Department. Ross had stated last spring that justice officials needed citizenship data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. That prompted Booker’s call yesterday for Ross to testify before Congress to answer the question, “Who initiated the request for the citizenship question and why?”

Booker posited his own reason for the question earlier on a conference call with activists to urge public opposition to the inclusion of the citizenship question. The U.S. Census Bureau is taking comments on the makeup of the 2020 questionnaire through August 7.

“I don’t think it takes a leap of cynicism to think why are they doing this question in a nation where we are already seeing continued assaults to undermine the democratic participation of minority communities and low income communities,” said Booker. “This is a shameful attempt to inject nativist, bigoted politics in a question that represents the lowest common denominator, that achieves no public interest. It is a shameful attempt to undermine who we are as a nation and undermines our very values as Americans.”

American passport

Advocates and national census experts warn that the inclusion of a citizenship question would guarantee a lower response rate and less accurate count, as immigrants who are not citizens fear answering the question could lead to their being targeted by federal immigration officials. That would disproportionately hurt blue states like New Jersey that have large immigrant populations.

Senator says it’s a ‘Paul Revere moment’

“This is a Paul Revere moment,” said Booker, referring to the patriot who took the famous midnight ride during the Revolutionary War to alert the colonial militia of the British army’s approach. “We gotta wake folks up to the incoming crisis that we have. And I believe the more people are aware, the more people that are outraged, the more people that are activated, the more people that are engaged, the more likely we are to prevent what I think is a true threat to our democracy.”

Census population counts every decade are constitutionally mandated and are used both to distribute many types of federal aid — an estimated $17 billion a year to New Jersey — and to reapportion the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The aim is to give states proportional representation based on population, not citizenship. 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, has grown at a slower rate than that of other states.

More than one in five New Jerseyans is an immigrant, census data shows, with slightly more than half of immigrants having become citizens. Of about 912,000 immigrants who are not citizens, more than half are likely undocumented. The census is charged with counting all residents, not just citizens.

“Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross’s shameful attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, in light of the racist, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic policies being promoted by the federal government, promise to discourage people from participating, thereby destroying a full count in New Jersey,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “An undercount means less political participation and less federal funding for New Jersey. It undermines our democracy. We urge New Jersey’s residents to lift their collective voices to ensure that everyone, and we mean everyone, is counted.”

Hard-to-count areas

Hard-to-count (HTC) communities. Click to expand/collapse
Booker said New Jersey already has a number of areas considered hard-to-count by census officials. Nearly 500 census tracts, which are sections of between 2,500 and 8,000 people that may coincide with municipal borders or span multiple town boundaries, in all but three counties — Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren — had fewer than 73 percent response rates to the 2010 census and are considered hard to count. These hard-to-count areas are home to more than half of the state’s African-Americans, 40 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of Asians.

“It is very difficult even with the rules as they are right now to accurately count,” Booker said, adding the citizenship question is “going to choke the participation we have in many of these already hard to count areas.”

The census bureau estimates that in 2010 it missed counting 31,000 New Jersey residents, or less than four-tenths of 1 percent of the total population. But figuring in the margin of error, that undercount could have been as high as 181,100 people — or the census might have overcounted the state’s population by as much as 119,000.

In five census tracts — three in Middlesex County and two in Essex — fewer than half the residents answered the 2010 census, according to data from the census bureau. Many of these are in cities like Newark, Camden and Paterson.

Inge Spungen, executive director of the Paterson Alliance, said it is estimated that the 2010 Census failed to count as many as 23,000 residents in the city that has 72 ethnic groups speaking 35 different languages.

Afraid to apply for benefits for citizen children

“There is already palpable fear among the undocumented, it is hard to believe citizens and noncitizens will complete the Census if a citizenship question is included,” she said.

Sara Cullinane, director of the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey, said the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants — some of whom have lived in the country for decades and some of whom are here legally — has frightened many into refusing to apply for benefits to which their citizen children are entitled.

“Posing a citizenship question on the Census would have a chilling effect and continue the undercount of these populations,” she said. “They are questioning what will the government do when it gets this citizenship information.”

Individual census responses are sealed for 72 years, when they may be made public. But if the results of the census show large concentrations of noncitizens in certain neighborhoods, advocates say it is possible that federal immigration authorities could target these for enforcement actions.

The census questionnaire is a short survey mailed to every home in the country, with workers attempting to follow up in person with those who have not responded by mail. This year, the bureau is hoping to get most respondents to answer the survey online. There was a question about citizenship on most of the decennial censuses between 1820 and 1950.

Taking legal action

The proposed question for 2020 is to ask every person in each household: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” The responses are: “Yes, born in the United States … Yes, born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or Northern Marianas … Yes, born abroad of U.S. citizen parent or parents … Yes, U.S. citizen by naturalization — Print year of naturalization … No, not a U.S. citizen.”

The advocates say they are taking, or are planning to take, legal action to stop the inclusion of the citizenship question. They also plan efforts to encourage as many residents as possible to fill out the census, particularly in hard-to-count areas.

New Jersey lawmakers have taken initial steps on the issue, as well. Both houses have passed legislation A4208/S2730 to establish the New Jersey Complete Count Commission, a 27-member body of lawmakers, state government representatives, local officials, business leaders and nonprofit officials to develop, recommend, and help implement strategies to achieve maximum participation in the census. The measure is on the governor’s desk awaiting action.

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