Advocates Say Census Citizenship Question Risks Silencing Minority Populations

Lawyers for immigrant activists fighting the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census made closing arguments Tuesday in federal court before activists held a press conference to reinforce lawyers’ claims that adding the question would disproportionately harm minorities.

Immigrant activists at the press conference on Tuesday. (The Ink/Sabrina He).

Members of the New York Immigration Coalition and other advocates have sued the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department. While advocates fighting alongside the coalition had initially filed a separate lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Jesse Furman decided to merge their plea with similar complaints from other groups in 24 states.

At the press conference, civil rights attorney Elizabeth OuYang said that the trial, which she blamed the Trump Administration for delaying 13 times, was about “lies, cheating, and abuse from the very top.” She argued that the federal government had not sufficiently tested the effect of adding the citizenship question.

Matthew Colangelo, executive deputy attorney general for social justice, represented New York state and agreed with OuYang.  “There is probably no subject more exhaustively considered,” he said, “than the need to test the questionnaire.” Even though there was no precedent specifically for the citizenship question, Colangelo said that “there is a custom and practice to test when there is new information” in general, so the the decision by the Commerce Department, which administers the census, to not pretest the citizenship question was still unjustified.

During the trial, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman discussed how problematic it would be to mask the underlying motive with a “legal rational of a reason that is not the actual reason.” In response, Brett Shumate, deputy assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, said that  Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “doesn’t have to choose the best option,” but only provide a rational reason for his decision, which according to Shumate, “he clearly did.”

Following up, Colangelo asked why the citizenship question was needed now.  Betsy Plum, vice president of policy at the coalition, said that the administration would be “jeopardizing the entire census by including an untested, discriminatory, and dangerous citizenship question” and that “the federal government does not get to play favorite with the census.”

As the trial came to a close, Furman asked whether undocumented immigrants would be silenced from a census originally meant to help communicate their needs with policy makers but which now exposed them to deportation.

Shumate insisted that Ross should not be held accountable as the citizenship question was a request on the part of the Justice Department, which maintained that adding it  would better reflect the Voting Rights Act’s provisions against racial discrimination. However, Furman disagreed, noting that the Commerce Department only planned to impose the question in areas populated by minority immigrants and said that it would be “arbitrarily capricious to impose a question in some parts of the country but not others.”

Furman said that he will make his decision in the next couple of weeks.

Header photo: Immigrant activists gathered at Foley Square following closing arguments for census lawsuit. (The Ink/Sabrina He)