WASHINGTON — The Trump administration dealt a costly blow to New York and other heavily urbanized states earlier this week.
Its weapon? A simple question.
Are you a citizen?
The administration wants to add a question like that to the 2020 census, saying that doing so will help it enforce the Voting Rights Act. But census experts warn that adding the citizenship question will lead to a vast undercount of immigrants, given that it will likely strike fear in the hearts of undocumented aliens and even some fully legal newcomers, who will then hide in the shadows rather than greet the census taker at the door.
If the experts are right, the next census could miss hundreds of thousands of New York residents. And as a result, the state could lose out on everything from federal funding to political representation to the labor force it needs.
Of course, you may be thinking: What's wrong with the government knowing how many citizens it has?
Nothing, really – except that's not what the Constitution calls for. It requires a count of "the whole number of free persons" every 10 years and makes no mention of counting U.S. citizens.
Then again, the Constitution doesn't explicitly say the census can't ask a question about citizenship – but it does say the census has to be an "actual enumeration," otherwise known as an accurate count.
And the experts think asking that citizenship question will lead to an inaccurate count.
"Doing so would likely exacerbate privacy concerns and lead to inaccurate responses from non-citizens worried about a government record of their immigration status," four former census directors said in a brief filed with the Supreme Court. "The sum effect would be bad Census data."
And bad census data would likely hurt New York more than most states for one simple reason. New York is home to at least 4.4 million immigrants. Only California has more.
Undercounting those immigrants in the census would hurt the state in two ways.
First, it would mean the state would get less federal money. About 300 federal programs divide up their funds on the basis of census data.
So let's say the citizenship question in the census leads to a 1 percent undercount in New York State, which is not an unreasonable estimate in a state of nearly 20 million people where more than a fifth of them are immigrants. That undercount would mean a 1 percent cut in federal funding to Albany for Medicaid, for the Child Health Plus program, for food stamps, for highway aid.
While 1 percent may not sound like a lot, note that the federal government sent New York $34.4 billion for Medicaid alone in 2016. One percent of that is $34.4 million, or at least $344 million over 10 years that New York taxpayers rather than Uncle Sam would have to pay for the census undercount. And that's an extremely conservative estimate based on two-year-old figures and not figuring in inflation.
And that's just the cut in one program. Plenty of others – ranging from Pell grants for college kids to Head Start to the school lunch program to the Community Development Block Grant – would suffer a similar federal funding cut in New York.
The state would likely have less clout in Washington to fight federal funding cuts, too. New York already expects to lose a congressional seat in 2022. leaving it with 26, because its population isn't keeping up with that of fast-growing states. If there's a census undercount, it might even lose a second seat.
Here's now. The nation's 435 House seats are divided up on the basis of population, with each district projected to have about 770,000 residents starting in 2022. What if the census question causes a panic in immigrant communities, meaning they shun the census, leading to an undercount of way more than 1 percent?
If that happens, it's possible that that nationwide, state-by-state recalculation of population could shift House seats from immigrant-heavy states to those with few such newcomers. And it's possible New York would lose a second House seat – as well as representation in the Electoral College that chooses the president – as a result.
Then there's the fact that Western New York farmers are already worried that their legal immigrant workforce is shrinking because of President Trump's crackdown on immigration. Might that workforce shrink further once word spreads in farm country that nosy census workers will be checking into whether everyone is a citizen? It certainly seems possible.
Those are just some of the reasons why New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and at least 11 other states plan to sue to try to stop the Census Bureau from asking that citizenship question.
“This move directly targets states like New York that have large, thriving immigrant populations – threatening billions of dollars in federal funding for New York as well as fair representation in Congress and the Electoral College,” Schneiderman said.
In other words, it now seems certain that no matter what the Trump administration wants, the dispute over the citizenship question will be settled before 2020 in the American way: in the courts.
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