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California Sues the Federal Government over a Census Question - Why Does It Matter?

Suing over the Census

Last week, The Commerce Department announced it would reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 Census to help enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In response, the State of California is suing over the census citizenship question. The suit, led by California's Attorney General Xavier Becerra, was quickly followed by a separate lawsuit by a coalition of 19 state Attorneys Generals, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

These lawsuits have left many wondering - why is everyone so up in arms about a simple question? To understand what's going on, we need to start at the beginning.

Why do we have a census anyway?

The U.S. Constitution states that an “actual enumeration” (aka: headcount) of the population must be taken every 10 years in order to apportion representation in Congress - i.e. redraw the districts and assign the number of Representatives each state will have in the House.

This apportionment - redrawing of districts - is based on the “number of free persons” in each state, according to the Constitution's language - not the number of U.S. Citizens in each state.

The U.S. government also uses the Census numbers to allocate federal resources to where they are needed based on population count. This includes things like assigning federal funding for health care, transportation and education.

The U.S. Census must count both Citizens and non-citizen residents - such as Green Card holders - in order to get an accurate population count and be able to correctly assign congressional districts and allocate federal resources.

Why does adding a Citizenship Question to the Census matter?

Eric Schneiderman, in his introduction of the coalition lawsuit, explained why the citizenship question mattered. "[Adding the question of citizenship] will create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities that would make impossible both an accurate Census and the fair distribution of federal tax dollars."

In an interview with CNBC, Xavier Becerra put it more bluntly. "Given the way this administration has attacked immigrants, you can understand why immigrant families would be afraid to fill out the census questionnaire [with a citizenship question]."

Becerra also pointed out the federal government relied on census data during World War II to identify Japanese-American families for internment camps.

Including a question about citizenship could intimidate or discourage people and result in an inaccurate census that might "translate into several million people not being counted," Becerra concluded.

Why do California and New York Care so much about a Census Question?

"This move directly targets states like New York that have large, thriving immigrant populations," explained Schneiderman in a statement. "[It's] threatening billions of dollars in federal funding for New York as well as fair representation in Congress and the Electoral College.”

In Becerra's lawsuit, it was noted that California "has the highest number of U.S.-born citizens who live with at least one undocumented family member" and counts "more foreign-born residents (over 10 million) and non-citizens (over 5 million) than any other state." It's interesting to note that the state of California also has the world's sixth largest economy, which both citizens and immigrant residents have contributed to building.

Even if the federal government did not use the census citizenship data to single out immigrant families, given the xenophobic tendencies of the current administration, some worry that the federal government might choose to allocate federal resources to areas with high population of citizens but not those with high population of legal residents, such as the states of California and New York.

The Suit

The California lawsuit states that asking the citizenship question isn't just unconstitutional but a violation of federal laws. The citizenship question violates the constitutional requirement of “actual enumeration.”

“It is long settled that all persons residing in the United States — citizens and non-citizens alike — must be counted to fulfill the Constitution’s ‘actual enumeration’ mandate,” expressed Becerra in a statement.

Who will Win?

Commerce Department officials said that a Census Bureau has failed to provide “definitive, empirical support” that adding a citizenship question would reduce response rates, but many others disagree.

Nate Persily, a professor of law at Stanford Law school, is one of them. "They do have a case — it is based on the argument that adding this question so late in the day will basically destroy the usability of the census," she said.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert and former congressional staffer who worked on census oversight, called the move a mistake. “My biggest worry is the growing risk that public confidence in the census will drop significantly,” Lowenthal said. “Between evidence that the administration is manipulating the census for political gain, and fear that the administration will use the census to harm immigrants, confidence in the integrity of the count could plummet."

"The census is only as good as the public’s willingness to participate," concluded Lowenthal.