The Constitution requires that a census be performed every 10 years to determine how hundreds of billions in federal dollars are spent each year, reallocate representative seats by population and, of course, collect and share accurate statistical data about persons living in the United States. The 2020 census participation and the accuracy of its data are in peril.
The U.S. Census Bureau should not move forward with the proposed question asking about the citizenship status of every household member for its 2020 census. Doing so will skew the results of this critical census that, even at its most accurate, under-counted people of color by 1.5 million in 2010 (Hispanics by 1.5 percent, African Americans by 2.1 percent and Native Americans by 4.9 percent).
This undercount will increase in 2020 if this question is allowed to remain.
Since the first census in 1790, we, as a nation, historically under-counted African Americans because they were considered three-fifths of a person for constitutional purposes. Even after the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, African Americans and other persons of color continued to be under-counted in censuses (and, of course, marginalized and discriminated in almost every other aspect of American life, too).
The recent decision to include a question asking about the citizenship status will lead to an even more statistically significant undercount by, likely, millions of people! This question has not been asked in the decennial census since the 1950s.
The stated reasoning for including such a question — determining the number of citizens — is circumspect, at best. Its implicit goal is to marginalize communities of color, specifically Latino/Hispanic immigrants, and deter overall participation in the census and civic activities.
Even before this question was proposed, the bureau’s own researchers noticed low participation rates in field tests last year by Latino/Hispanic respondents based on concerns over their data confidentiality. These concerns are heightened now among already “hard-to-count” populations, which include non-English speakers and persons who distrust the government.
The climate of fear and mistrust of the government is, based on my conversations every day with undocumented and documented persons whom I represent, at an all-time high. My clients are worried about reporting crimes to the police when they are the victims and driving their children to the doctor for fear of being detained. Expecting full census participation in this climate is farcical.
This question serves no statistically legitimate purpose, and its inclusion will only skew results to favor the preservation of a white minority in power through electoral representation and greater federal funding at the expense of those, who, statistically, comprise a majority in many areas of our country.
This week marks Rosh Chodesh Iyar, when, we learn from the aptly named book Numbers 1:2 that Moses and Aaron were instructed by God to take a second census of the entire Israelite community living in the wilderness. Unlike the previous census that occurred just weeks earlier in Exodus 30:11, which was used to levy a half-shekel from everyone for building the mishkan, this new census was used to determine the number of men in each tribe available for military service.
Ramban insightfully notices that one difference with this census is that each person is counted individually, by name, before Moses and Aaron. Thus, when Moses and Aaron are making decisions, they are not doing so based on numbers alone, but rather, remembering all the people (not numbers) they are responsible for.
Let us be guided by this interpretation that we, as a nation, are more than just numbers of citizens or non-citizens. We are people. And our census ought to reflect our inherent values as humans in what questions are asked.
Please share your concerns on the census with your elected officials right away. No community or state (Michigan included) can afford to lose representation or federal dollars with a projected undercount. And if your elected official is unwilling to say something publicly, please tell him/her that you can be counted on to vote accordingly in the next election.
Ruby Robinson is the supervising attorney of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. He also sits on the board of the JCRC|AJC and is the co-chair of its Government Relations Committee.
Support the Detroit Jewish News Foundation
Support the educational mission of the independent, nonprofit Detroit Jewish News Foundation.