By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Last month, a federal judge in New York ruled the Census Bureau can’t ask people about their citizenship status in the 2020 Census. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross was directed to add the question by the Trump administration. In March 2018 Ross told Congress a citizenship question would protect voting rights.

Judge Jess Furman wasn’t persuaded. He noted in his 227-page decision that Ross wasn’t really trying to protect the Voting Rights Act.

“The court can and does infer in the various ways that Secretary Ross and his aides acted like people with something to hide, that they did have something to hide,” wrote Furman.

“The National Urban League applauds Judge Furman’s ruling to block the proposed citizenship question,” said Jeri Green, Senior 2020 Census Advisor at the National Urban League (NUL).

In his Jan 15 decision Furman noted that hundreds of thousands if not millions would go uncounted if the citizenship question is included in the census.

“We believe the question is a thinly veiled attempt to sabotage and effect congress and electoral college representation by deliberately undercounting vulnerable populations and erasing them from the census count,” Green said.

On Jan 24 the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to hear an expedited appeal, bypassing the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in Lower Manhattan. Further litigation will likely delay preparations for the population count. 

“We don’t know what the court will do but we do know that Congress can act,” said Beth Lynk, Census Counts Campaign Director at The Leadership Conference Education Fund.

Lynk said letters have been written and circulated to members of the Senate and House and a number of bills are being drafted to make sure the citizen question is not included in the 2020 Census. On March 14, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform plans to hold a hearing to discuss the controversial question. Ross has agreed to testify.

“There should be no sides when it comes to the census and it is the bedrock of our representative democracy,” Lynk said.

The census is a $15.6 billion undertaking which should start ramping up in June 2019. But If the Supremes take the case, preparations could be delayed until October. The Census Bureau released a statement saying there would still be enough time to prepare for the Census Day on April 1, 2020.

Civil rights and census advocates say a delay could be disastrous because the bureau has to hire workers, train them, prepare the forms, set up offices around the country. More litigation will stall the Bureau’s efforts to reach out to the general public and minority communities about the census and why it is so important for everyone to participate. 

“The 2020 Census is our only chance in a decade for a fair and accurate count of our communities. Census data are used in countless ways to ensure that our families and communities have the resources and services that they need,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).

Yang noted that one quarter of Asians immigrants arrived after the last census in 2010, so they have never participated in a census before. Ninety percent of Asians living in the U.S. are either immigrants or children of immigrants and they are skeptical of government use of census data.

“A study released by census bureau itself last week showed that almost two thirds of Asian Americans have expressed concern about the use of census data,” said Yang. He said they are afraid it will be used against them. Considering the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, their concern is not unwarranted.

“If there is an undercount, vital public services, schools, hospitals, and highways are not properly funded, and already vulnerable communities will suffer,” Lynk said.  

“Given the importance of Census 2020 in distributing billions of dollars in federal funding and the allocation of political power to communities across the country for the next 10 years, we cannot afford to have millions of Latinos and other Americans missed in the nation’s decennial count,” stated Angela Manso, director of policy and legislative affairs at the NALEO Educational Fund.

“We urge Congress to remove the question so the Administration can focus on critical 2020 Census operations instead of the continued pursuit of this misguided, discriminatory policy,” said NUL’s Green. 

It takes years to prepare for the census and advocates say the count is on an “unforgiving clock”. They say if Congress passes legislation quickly to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 Census, a delay can be avoided in time to do a fair and accurate count of the population.