Expert: Citizenship Question Will Harm Immigrant Count in 2020 Census

In this June 22, 2018, file photo, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democratic lawmakers wanted Ross to clarify where a citizenship question on the 2020 census originated after newly released documents show he was seeking such a question early in Donald Trump’s presidency. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census will shrink an already undercounted group of immigrants in the decennial survey and weaken the political power of areas with a high concentration of non-citizens, a survey expert testified in federal court Monday.

“Current research, including by the Census Bureau, shows immigrants and Latinos hold considerable fears about participating,” Colm O’Muircheartaigh, a University of Chicago professor specializing in statistical research and analysis, explained in court Monday.

O’Muircheartaigh was the first witness to testify on behalf of California and six cities, including Los Angeles and San Jose, in a bench trial challenging U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s March 2018 decision to add the controversial question to the 2020 survey.

Critics say the move was intended to discourage immigrant participation and lower population numbers in Democratic strongholds like California, where an undercount could result in less federal funding and fewer congressional representatives and electoral votes.

The Trump administration says Ross added the question to help supply data to help enforce the Voting Rights Act. The government maintains that line of defense despite evidence that Ross aggressively pushed for the question to be added long before the Justice Department wrote a memo at his request justifying the need for citizenship data.

Before O’Muircheartaigh took the stand Monday, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg asked the Justice Department if it could still win the case if evidence shows voting rights enforcement was not the true motive for adding the census question.

“Don’t you rise or fall on whether or not that’s true,” Seeborg asked.

“I’m not sure I would concede that 100 percent,” Justice Department lawyer Carlotta Wells replied.

Another issue for trial centers on whether Ross adequately considered the facts when he decided to add the citizenship question last year. Ross stated in a March 2018 memo that U.S. Census officials and former Census Bureau directors offered no “empirical evidence” to support their view that adding the question would lead to an undercount of immigrants.

On Monday, O’Muircheartaigh challenged the veracity of that statement. The statistical research expert, who has been involved with the census since the early 1980s, cited annual American Community Survey (ACS) results, data from Census Bureau focus groups and other studies showing “an unprecedented level of concern” among Latinos about providing citizenship data to the government.

“Latino respondents are increasingly and in unprecedented ways raising concerns about confidentiality,” O’Muircheartaigh said.

O’Muircheartaigh noted that efforts to lessen the impact of adding the question are also likely to fail because immigrants are even less likely to respond to census agents who show up in person to non-responsive households.

“With this population, the level of threat is perceived as greater when a federal agent shows up at your door,” O’Muircheartaigh said.

Furthermore, the use of alternative means, such as government files to supplement data for non-responding immigrant households, would tend to be less successful. That’s because non-citizens often lack traceable records from steady employment, financial transactions and IRS tax filings, according to O’Muircheartaigh.

On cross-examination, Justice Department lawyer Marsha Edney noted that the undercount of Hispanics has occurred in prior surveys without a citizenship question. She also added that studies showing a decline in response rates among Latinos do not explain why the response rates decreased.

Finally, Edney attacked the basis of O’Muircheartaigh’s conclusion that a citizenship question will exacerbate existing disparities among undercounted Hispanics and immigrants compared to over-counted white citizens.

“You have not produced any quantitative evidence to support your conclusion, have you,” Edney asked.

“There is evidence,” O’Muircheartaigh replied. “I did not produce it.”

The trial is expected to resume on Wednesday.

It is the second federal trial that has been held to weigh legal challenges against the controversial Trump administration policy. A separate trial on the census citizenship question wrapped up in New York in November. A decision in that case is pending.

A federal judge in Maryland is also reviewing a set of lawsuits challenging the new census policy, and the Supreme Court is expected to decide early this year whether Secretary Ross should be required to testify about his decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

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