High stakes for Michigan as SCOTUS grapples with census question

By: - April 26, 2019 11:07 am

U.S. Supreme Court | Susan J. Demas

WASHINGTON — Census data shapes almost every corner of public life — from the amount of federal money funneled to school lunch programs, new bus routes and rural health clinics to the number of congressional seats allocated to a state.

As the country barrels toward the 2020 census, the U.S. Supreme Court must decide if the upcoming decennial census can include a question left unasked for over seven decades: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

The question that the President Trump administration wants included, the constitutionality of which was debated before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, could have sizable consequences for Michigan’s federal funding and political representation, census experts said.

The U.S. Constitution stipulates that each decade, the government must count every person in the country, regardless of citizenship status. A question about a respondent’s citizenship has been asked in the past, but in recent decades, it has been asked of only a small sample. 

Beth Lynk, director of the Census Counts Campaign for the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, is concerned that adding a citizenship question, simple as it may sound, would undermine a fair and accurate census count. Non-citizens would be discouraged from participating based on a fear that they would be identified and possibly deported, she said.

“When communities don’t receive their fair share of political representation, that undermines their ability to live a safe, healthy and equitable life,” Lynk said. “The census has to be fair and it has to be accurate. Otherwise, it subverts what our very democracy stands for.”

Losing a seat at the table

The government uses population data calculated by the census to draw states’ congressional districts and determine the appropriate number of representatives they should have.

According to Election Data Services, 12 states, including Michigan, might lose a congressional seat if a census undercount occurs. One less seat means less sway in Washington.

Michigan congressional districts | Wikimedia Commons

However, it should be noted that given Michigan’s relatively stagnant population, the state could very well be on track to lose a seat after 2020, regardless of the outcome of the citizenship question case. Michigan’s congressional delegation has been shrinking for decades.

The federal government distributes about $880 billion to local, state and tribal governments based on census data.

For every 1 percent of the population uncounted in the last census, the state of Michigan lost an estimated $94 million of federal funding, or $954 per person, according to a report by the George Washington Institute for Public Policy.

“We’re making sure the state of Michigan receives its fair share of funding,” said Melissa Smiley, who works for the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, a foundation leading mobilization efforts for the 2020 census in Michigan.

Her goal is to capture as complete a picture of Michigan as possible, she said. That means doing what it takes to reach every resident during the 2020 census.

“Anything that discourages people from filling out the census doesn’t help us achieve our goals and our goals are a fair and accurate count,” she said. An addition of a citizenship question would only complicate the process, she said. “We don’t think that the inclusion of that question helps our efforts.”

John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice and chair on the Census Advisory Committee said, “If you have an undercount in a community then that [entire] community won’t get those resources.”

He added, “Here we’re not just talking about immigrants, because immigrants are part of every single community. Even citizens are going to get less resources in these regions because people in their community are missed.”

Road to the highest court

U.S. Supreme Court justices fired queries at government officials and civil rights attorneys at Tuesday’s oral arguments in the case, Department of Commerce v. New York.

Last year, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced his plan to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, despite recommendations from the Census Bureau not to add the question.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appears before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on March 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Ross testified about ongoing preparations for the 2020 Census, and with it, the addition of a citizenship question. | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Research by the bureau indicated a high probability of error if the census included a citizenship question, a Census Bureau memo stated. And preliminary tests of the question revealed it would likely result in inaccurate data.

According to the Census Bureau, the addition of the question could result in an undercount of 6.5 million or more people. A half-dozen former Census Bureau directors opposed the question.

Civil rights advocates said census participants, particularly immigrants and communities of color, would fear giving their personal citizenship status to the government and elect not to participate.

Matthew Tragesser, who works for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization working to severely restrict immigration, is not convinced that the addition of a citizenship question would have a chilling effect on non-citizens.

“The census surveys are conducted anonymously, and federal law protects the confidentiality of respondents,” he said.

But Yang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice said the fear held by some immigrants is justified, especially considering instances when the U.S. government has discriminated against immigrants and communities of color.

“It is understandable that people are going to be fearful of what the government’s agencies’ actual intent is,” Yang said.

The lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court merged a flurry of lawsuits filed since Ross’ decision to override the Census Bureau’s recommendations and add the citizenship question to the census. The state of New York was joined by 16 states, in filing the first lawsuit against the administration.

Federal district courts in California, Maryland and New York have ruled that Ross did not legally implement the question and therefore the citizenship question cannot be included.

The U.S. Supreme Court likely will issue a final ruling in June.

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Camille Erickson
Camille Erickson

Camille Erickson is an investigative journalist covering politics and the economy through a social justice lens. She is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.