Latinos, Asian Americans still fear 2020 census over citizenship question, witnesses tell Congress

“This is exacerbated by a hostile environment toward immigrants propagated by this administration," NALEO's Arturo Vagas said.
Image: Demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court after a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census was reintroduced on April 23, 2019.
Demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court after a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was reintroduced on April 23, 2019.Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images file

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE
By Suzanne Gamboa

Many Latinos believe a citizenship question will be asked on the 2020 census and are less likely to participate, a national Latino leader told Congress on Thursday.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, said the “failed debacle” of the citizenship question has instilled a lasting fear that needs to be remedied.

“They believe there will be a citizenship question on the form despite its absence and many fear how the data will be used,” Vargas said. “This is exacerbated by a hostile environment toward immigrants propagated by this administration.”

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled the administration could not add the question about citizenship to the census. The court found the administration’s justification for adding the question was “contrived”.

Vargas was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which held a hearing on challenges and barriers to getting accurate tallies of hard-to-count communities on the 2020 census.

John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, echoed Vargas’ comments. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing minority group in the country.

“When the administration proposed to add the citizenship question without any testing, we knew right away we had a five-alarm fire … like any fire, the damage that has been done takes time to repair,” Yang told the committee.

He said getting immigrants to answer the census is difficult enough, but with the citizenship question “debacle” and “continuing anti-immigrant rhetoric, this task has become formidable.”

According to Vargas, the 2010 census undercounted 1.5 percent of the Latino population, including some 400,000 children under 5 years old.

The 2010 census determined the Latino population to number 50.5 million. It is now believed to be about 60 million people.

The Census Bureau also has said it undercounted 2.1 percent of the black population in 2010 and about .1 percent for the Asian population and 1.3 percent of the Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander population.

There also are concerns of undercounts in rural areas of the country since the census is allowing responses online this year and many rural areas have no access to the internet.

"Hard-to-count communities are in every state and district, from large urban areas to rural and remote communities, including American Indian tribal lands and reservations," said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

"Undercounted, underrepresented and underfunded"

Counting for the 2020 census is kicking off Jan. 21 in a remote part of Alaska using locally hired enumerators to knock on doors.

The committee's chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said she is “gravely concerned” that the Census Bureau may not be prepared to meet the challenge and its constitutionally mandated mission of counting every American regardless of race, citizenship or political affiliation.

“The 2020 census could leave communities across the country undercounted, underrepresented and underfunded,” Maloney said.

The Census Bureau did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. On Monday, the bureau announced it is attempting to hire up to 500,000 temporary, part-time census takers. The administration had initially restricted hiring to only citizens but has since opened hiring to people with authorization to work in the country, which Yang said was a good step but may have come late.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the committee’s ranking Republican, returned to the issue of whether the administration should have been able to add the citizenship question to the 2020 census, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that it cannot be added.

He asserted that Vargas and Yang were trying to keep members of Congress from debating whether the decennial census should ask about citizenship. He attempted to get Yang to respond directly to his question of whether it’s important to know how many people in the country are citizens.

Yang refused to take the bait. Yang would only say that it’s important to get an accurate count on the decennial census and if there is anything to detract from getting a fair and accurate count that is a concern.

Vargas, given the opportunity later to respond to Jordan’s question by a Democratic committee member, said that the Census Bureau does ask if you are a citizen in the American Community Survey, which is a longer questionnaire that goes to select households. He said researchers have determined the ACS is a better way to collect citizenship data.

Witnesses also spoke about other challenges that could affect the accuracy of the census. These include the fact that the Census Bureau materials are being offered in just five Asian languages, the issue of cybersecurity for online responses, and a Latino outreach program that focuses only on Spanish-speaking Hispanics.

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.