The Immigration Question Makes The Census Useless

Lawmakers use the Census to determine where people live — not what their status is

by Hanna Brooks Olsen

Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on 04/05/2018. It was republished on 01/17/2022 with a new featured image.

Though King County’s explosive growth in the last decade has largely been attributed almost entirely to Amazon—and thus, generally assumed to be single “bros” living in South Lake Union apartments—our newest neighbors are coming from all over and for a plethora of reasons. According to official records, “more than half of King County’s new population was foreign-born” between 2001 and 2010. In fact, the immigrant and refugee population are the fastest growing in the area, adding new languages, cultures, and customs to neighborhoods, most of which are located on the edge or just outside of Seattle’s boundaries.

This has added new challenges and pressure on many of the region’s governmental services, including schools, roads, housing, social services, and law enforcement. Kids are entering classrooms with varying levels of English proficiency, but also, with dynamic skill sets and unique life stories. Meanwhile, their parents are starting businesses, getting bus passes, and voting.

The newest Americans in our area need a government and services that work for them—whether they’re documented or otherwise. Which is what the census should be trying to assess. But thanks to a last-minute question added by the Census Bureau, which proposes that every resident will be asked about their citizenship status, the 2020 census is very likely going to be undermined in its accuracy. And, because of King County’s ever-growing population of immigrants and refugees, that could make a lot of existing problems even worse.

What The Census Is Supposed To Measure

The census isn’t something that government officials take lightly—it’s literally a cornerstone of the nation’s design. According to the United States Constitution, the census is designed to allocate “Representatives and direct Taxes,” meaning that the results determine how states get tax dollars and representatives in Congress. Incorrect census numbers, then, can mean fewer resources for schools, block grants for welfare programs, and even the number of lawmakers in D.C. 

What the census is not designed to do is tell us who is in the country, or what their paperwork status is. Because even non-citizens, according to numerous rulings by the Supreme Court, are entitled to services, rights, and a public education.

But modeling has shown that adding a mandatory citizenship question—which has not been a part of the general population’s census since the 1950s, though there were non-mandatory questions as recently as the 2000s on the ACS, a snapshot question that just a fraction of the population receive—could keep people from answering at all. And that could mean incorrect data and, as a result, fewer federal resources. And the census determines the allocation of a lot of resources.       

A working paper from the Census Bureau in 2017, tracking the 2010 census results, found that a total of “132 programs used Census Bureau data to distribute more than $675 billion in funds during fiscal year 2015.”

In addition to programs, the census also determines where voting boundaries are, and how new districts are drawn. At a time when conversations around gerrymandering and voter suppression are heating up—and regions are being redrawn to be less prejudicial—an accurate count is absolutely critical to ensure proper representation of voters.

States also rely on census data and need an accurate count; in a memo to the President, lawmakers noted that “Washington state and local government agencies rely on census data for planning and delivering education, economic development and employment, health, and transportation services.”

Those resources are critical for schools, infrastructure projects, public safety, and social services, like food programs and translation tools. Schools which have shown huge growth since the last census—like many in South Seattle—could be granted new resources, like more money for paraeducators, new and better supplies, and even mental health counselors.     

Why the Question Matters       

It’s no surprise why households with one or more undocumented resident wouldn’t want to tell the federal government where they are—the rhetoric from the White House has been extremely aggressive and frightening for families who are living and working in the country without proof of naturalization.

In a memo sent by Census Bureau staffers expressing concern over the question, they noted that “researchers heard respondents express new concerns about topics like the ‘Muslim ban,’ discomfort ‘registering’ other household members by reporting their demographic characteristics, the dissolution of the ‘DACA’ (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) program, repeated references to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), etc.”

If residents opt out of the census for fear of retaliation based on their immigration status, the count may be wildly inaccurate, particularly in areas which have a higher population of new Americans.

Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal released a statement drawing attention to this exact issue, noting that the question “would discourage the more than 16 million people who live in mixed-status families from participating in the census.”

That means that neighborhoods which already face systemic challenges could see even fewer resources allocated.

In short, adding this question stands to widen the access and equity gaps which already exist for our neighborhoods that house a larger population of immigrants and refugees and disadvantage those individuals who are citizens.          

Locally, officials have spoken up about the dangerous nature of this question on the Census; Washington State is one of 17 which have promised to sue over its addition, citing the Census Bureau’s own admission that it will “inevitably jeopardize the overall accuracy of the population count.” The lawsuit states that the question will “[deter] participation in immigrant communities, because of concerns about how the federal government will use citizenship information.”

There are still several years before the 2020 census is deployed, and the lawsuit serves to, if not scrub the question, at least to delay it or require more thought. But the underlying concern remains: The census is a measuring tool designed to help allocate resources. If it can be weaponized in the hateful crusade against immigrants and refugees in our area, anything can.

Before you move on to the next story …

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