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Citizenship Question Would Appear On Census With No 'Dress Rehearsal'

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra discusses the need for bail reform, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP Photo

Five hours after the U.S. Commerce Department announced the 2020 Census would include a question about citizenship, California sued.

“We’ve been preparing for this,” state Attorney General Xavier Becerra said.

The lawsuit argues that question will lead to an undercount of immigrant populations in the state, as they fear responding to a federal administration that has made deporting undocumented immigrants a central campaign.

“This isn’t just a guess. This isn’t just speculation. This is based on historical practice,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said. “And it is impossible to ignore the intent by the President of the United States.”

An undercount could deny California up to billions of dollars in federal funds and possibly congressional representation, both of which are based on the Census.

The Census has not asked the general populace about citizenship status since the 1950 count.

The U.S. Justice Department says the question would help it enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Census is directly used for redistricting. Having a citizenship count in the same Census tracts would give it apples-to-apples data, which the department says could be used to discover illegal racial gerrymandering or voter suppression.

But, the question would also be untested. The bureau conducts a “dress rehearsal” to see how the questions and their order affect responses. This year, it includes nothing about citizenship. Former Census directors say that adds unneeded uncertainty to the count.

“Adding a citizenship question without a testing opportunity in a contemporary, Census-like environment will run the risk of introducing serious undercounts for many population groups in the 2020 Census,” said the Census Bureau’s most recent director, John Thompson, in a statement. He resigned last year.

The administration’s justification says there’s little evidence about how it will affect turnout, one way or the other.

“The former director of the Census Bureau during the last decennial census told me that, while he wished there were data to answer the question, none existed to his knowledge,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wrote. “Nielsen's Senior Vice President for Data Science and the former Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Census Bureau under President George W. Bush also confirmed that, to the best of their knowledge, no empirical data existed on the impact of a citizenship question on responses.”

The California lawsuit notes that, even before the addition of citizenship question, Census staff have noted an increasing apprehension among immigrant populations about answering the bureau’s questions.

“Despite having participated in the past, they seemed visibly nervous and reticent and required extensive explanations regarding how their data would be used and their personal identifying information would be redacted,” a September report says of one focus group.

California has been preparing for a difficult Census, with or without a citizenship question. The bureau may lack the necessary level of funding for thorough contact in hard-to-reach neighborhood, and the administration has yet to appoint a new director, after Thompson’s resignation.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed $40 million in state money to help increase the response rate.

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