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Ensuring The Census Works for All Americans

By Sen. Tony Navarrete (AZ), Former Chair of NHCSL’s Latino Voting & Elections Task Force

Rep. Tony Navarrete (AZ)

Rep. Tony Navarrete (AZ)

January 2020

Just a few weeks after NHCSL kicked off its 15th Annual National Summit of Hispanic State Legislators with a policy session on the 2020 Census, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, announced his decision to include a question about respondents’ citizenship in the 2020 Census that is likely to cause an undercount of Hispanics, unless Congress or the courts overturn this decision.

NHCSL immediately mobilized and approved Emergency Resolution 2018-12, which I sponsored with Rep. Rebecca Chávez-Houck (UT). The Resolution was unanimously adopted at the 2018 Spring Executive Committee meeting, on behalf of the entire Caucus, rejecting the inclusion of the citizenship question in the Census questionnaire.

Secretary Ross’ announcement came on the heels of an earlier decision announced by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in January 2018, which eliminated the combined race/ethnicity question from the Census, that would have made it easier for Hispanics to identify themselves in the questionnaire.

Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto (NM), moderator of the Summit’s policy session, emphasized the importance of the upcoming Census and that all Latinos participate and be counted. Ivey-Soto was quick to point out how Latino participation in the Census is critical for states’ federal funding formulas, and how it is also crucial to advance political representation for the Hispanic community.

Roberto Ramírez, Assistant Division Chief for Special Population Statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau, outlined key data points on how the Hispanic population trends have evolved from 1970 to 2016. In the 1970 Census, there were 9.6 million Hispanics in the Unites States. Fast-forward to the 2010 Census, and that number rose to 50.5 million; a 400% growth. As of July 2016, the number of Latinos in the U.S. was 57.5 million with a projection of 119 million Hispanics by 2060, or 28.6% of the total population.

“The Hispanic question is here to stay,” said Ramírez, stating there are no plans to eliminate the query asking Census respondents about their Hispanic ethnic origin. Ramírez also said the Census Bureau does not set standards for the collection of information on ethnicity and race for the Federal Government, since they are a data agency and not a policy agency. Those standards are decided by OMB, which has determined five categories for race: 1) American Indian/Alaskan Native, 2) Asian, 3) Black/African American, 4) Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or 5) White.

OMB made the decision not to include a combined race/ethnicity question, despite the fact that the agency had tested it thoroughly and the results had been positive. In contrast, OMB was inconsistent with the application of this reasoning in the case of the citizenship question, which was not researched nor tested prior to the announcement. In fact, the query was not included in the small district in Providence, Rhode Island, where, according to NHCSL Vice President for Policy Carlos Tobón (RI), there have already been problems with the testing on the ground. Tobón also points out that Providence is a highly urban area and that no rural areas will be tested in the rest of the country, making it difficult to test its effectiveness in counting Latinos and other minorities in those areas.

For Rosalind Gold, Senior Director of Policy Research and Advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), and a panelist at the session, “you cannot get an accurate count of the Nation’s population unless we have a full and complete count of the Latino community.” In her view, the two most pressing matters at stake for Latinos in the upcoming Census are power, because population changes affect the apportionment of seats in Congress, and money, because over $600 billion are allocated based on states’ Census data for vital programs in the areas of healthcare, education, highway construction projects, school lunches, and early Head Start programs, to name a few.

Unlike the 2010 enumeration, the Internet will be the primary response mode for answering the 2020 Census. However, the Bureau needs to have a more robust presence with field enumerators, especially for Latinos that do not have access to the Internet.

Several issues can jeopardize an accurate count of the population in the 2020 Census:

  1. The citizenship question. Many Hispanic organizations are advocating for the Bureau not to go forward with this since the accuracy of the question has never been researched nor tested.
  2. Federal statute regarding the hiring of Federal Government employees. Generally, the law says that those employees should be US citizens, but there has always been a waiver for Census staff to work for the Bureau. So far, there will be no waiver, which undermines the cultural competence needed to reach certain populations.
  3. Resources. Congress is not providing the Bureau the funds it needs to fully perform its duties. Consequently, community outreach has been delayed.

I urge all my fellow NHCSL state legislators to organize a complete count committee for each state. At least one member in each committee should coordinate all count activities at all state agencies and promote efforts to appropriate state funding for Census outreach.

As to the citizenship question, several states have taken the Administration to court over the matter. A decision is expected before the 2020 Census takes place.

Meanwhile, NHCSL will continue to push for this question to be eliminated. The ramifications of leaving the question will affect not just the Latino community and others that will be undercounted – and the federal funding that would jeopardize – but also the economic ramifications of not having accurate data, since businesses use Census information for their investment decisions. The legal arguments are also sound. The 14th amendment of the US Constitution clearly states that every person, regardless of citizenship, needs to be counted. As NHCSL Resolution 2018-12 states, the inclusion of the citizenship question also violates procedural and substantive requirements of both the Census Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.

For all these reasons and more, I am proud to stand along my fellow Latino legislators and NHCSL in ensuring that every individual in this country is counted in the 2020 Census.

Navarrete represents District 30 in Arizona.