In the Corona-Elmhurst neighborhood of New York City's Queens, the sewer grid is at maximum capacity, the schools are overcrowded and sanitation services barely cover the neighborhood’s requirements. The citizenship question on the 2020 census could make confronting these challenges harder should a significant portion of its population go uncounted, and consequently off the radar for infrastructure and services planning.
A high proportion of residents in Corona-Elmhurst are Latino and Chinese immigrants, and even before the Trump administration's focus on cracking down on immigration, many were wary of the government, according to community leaders.
“Fear is what happened in 2010. People would not answer the door, so, on paper, the neighborhood became a ghost town,” the Rev. William M. Hoppe of the Church of St. Leo said of the previous census.
“The 2010 census says we have 178,000 residents. But we know the number would be a lot more and our services are strained because of that,” added Christian Cassagnol, district manager for the neighborhood’s community board.
The census, which is required by the U.S. Constitution, takes place every 10 years and is used to determine representation in Congress, draw up state legislative districts and distribute more than $675 billion in federal funds annually.
New York City has a history of undercounting because its neighborhoods have a high proportion of hard-to-count residents: undocumented immigrants and young, single people. But experts fear that the citizenship question on the 2020 census will worsen the undercounting not only in New York, but nationwide --with far-reaching damages.
Undercounting will not only hurt the undocumented, or sanctuary cities. It will affect representation and federal funding in many states, including Republican states, as well the capacity of both public and private institutions to plan over the next decade.
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This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will be deciding whether it will allow a citizenship question on the 2020 census. If accepted, this would be the first time the question is included in the census since 1950.
The administration’s argument that the question would provide data to assist the Department of Justice in its enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was struck down as a pretext by federal judges in New York, Maryland and California between January and April. During an April 23 hearing at the Supreme Court, conservative judges seemed inclined to accept the question, despite arguments that including the question would hurt the count. Opponents argued that adding the question would not improve the accuracy of the current method used to count non-citizens.
New evidence was discovered after the hearing, which the American Civil Liberties Union notified the court of. The ACLU says that it shows that a Republican redistricting specialist "played a significant role in orchestrating the addition of the citizenship question" in order to give an electoral advantage to "Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."
The Justice Department has said that the specialist Thomas Hofeller, who died in August, had no role in its request to the Commerce Department to add the question. Hard drives that his daughter discovered after his death included his work on a citizenship question.
In the United States, 43 million people are foreign-born, 45 percent of whom are Latino, and 22 million are non-citizens, according to the American Community Survey of 2016. In addition, the Census Bureau estimates that 11.3 million undocumented individuals are living in the United States (about one in four immigrants).
For New York, the undocumented population is estimated at 560,000, with about 1 million New Yorkers living in a mixed-status household, according to the city.
Experts expect the citizenship question to deter more than the undocumented from responding to the census. Trust in government is at a historic low, and the question of immigration has been especially heated since 2016. In this context, “the problem with the citizenship question is that it seems to point in the direction that individuals might say ‘well, I may be outside the law,’” said Joel Perlmann, professor of sociology at Bard College.
Millions of households have at least one undocumented member, and this could lead the whole household to not participate in the census for fear of getting in trouble with the law. Even in cases where everybody in the household is documented, fear of the government's intention could lead people to become uncertain about the legality of their status, Perlman said.
“People have a stereotype about who will be hurt by this,” said Justin Levitt, professor of law at Loyola Law School. “People have been assuming that it will be targeted to the people who don’t answer the census. It’s not. It will affect all of the surrounding communities.”
The most affected will be states where people are most distrustful and fearful of government, and that includes, most prominently, Republican states that have a high proportion of Latinos.
“Texas has been growing like crazy. If the census were correct, it should get three or four more representatives and billions in funding,” Levitt said. But because the vast majority of the state is Latino and many are undocumented, if the question gets approved, Texas as a whole would lose both federal funds and the new seats that would probably have been drawn by Republicans. Republicans would suffer similarly in Florida and the central valley of California, he said.
In Corona-Elmhurst, and in New York City in general, the city government and community districts are preparing to mobilize people to participate in a context that is more difficult than in 2010: with the citizenship question and in a storm of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The city has allocated $40 million to ensure a full 2020 census count. This includes $14 million to support community-based organizations "whose work is essential to ensuring a complete count of all city residents."
Community Boards have created Census Committees to help in the process. Organizations, such as NYC BLAC for Census 2020, the Brooklyn Community Foundation, and The New York Community Trust, among other local nonprofits, are leading grassroots initiatives. And in Brooklyn, where a large portion of the undercounting took place in the 2010 census, the Brooklyn Borough president, Eric Adams, has launched the Brooklyn Complete Count Committee and the #MakeBrooklynCount campaign.
“We want the number. Just give us a number of how may people live here,” Cassagnol said.