Monday, April 29, 2019

Supreme Court oral argument discounts empirical studies predicting census undercount

As Kevin Johnson posted on ImmigrationProf blog last week, The Supreme Court heard oral argument on April 25, 2019 in the dispute over the Trump administration’s decision to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census. The issue in the case is whether the district court erred in enjoining the secretary of the Department of Commerce from reinstating a question about citizenship to the 2020 decennial census on the ground that the secretary’s decision violated the Administrative Procedure Act. At the oral argument, the justices seemed divided along ideological lines, with the most media outlets reporting that the conservative majority seems ready to uphold the use of the citizenship question.

What’s at stake? The federal government argued that the Department of Justice wants data about citizenship to better enforce federal voting rights laws. But the challengers in the case counter that asking about citizenship will lead to an inaccurate count because studies show households with Latinos and immigrants may not participate, resulting in an undercount that distorts political representation and dispersion of federal funding for their communities. Beyond the immediate parties to the lawsuit, a Republican and a Democratic former director of the U.S. Census Bureau sent the current director a letter of concerns and filed an amicus brief to similar effect in an earlier lawsuit.

What does the empirical evidence actually show? Numerous studies show that there is merit to the empirical prediction of an undercount. Demographer Jennifer Van Hook explains why in a Democracy Works Podcast and other scholars have summarized similar research in op-eds. Most recently, the Census Bureau conducted studies using survey data and focus groups demonstrating the reduced participation and inaccurate responses likely to result from including this specific question. Secretary Ross discounts these studies. He basis his disagreement, ironically, on a 2014 study by the same Jennifer Van Hook who is advocating against adding the citizenship question. It turns out the 2014 study differentiates between the response rates garnered from private surveys and government-sponsored surveys, presumably because fear of immigration enforcement shapes the willingness of individuals to participate, and it contains the important caveat that “conclusions drawn from data preceding “the widespread emergence of immigrant enforcement measures at federal, state and local levels… may not apply in the more recent enforcement context.” The anticipated chilling effect of inquiring in the current enforcment-dominated climate is that 6.5 million people will not respond to the 2020 census themselves if a citizenship question is included, and that estimate may elevate after the agency conducts a field test of the question on a 2020 census form beginning in June.

In short, including a citizenship question during the current climate of immigration enforcement would impede the Constitutional mandate of the federal government obtain a “full, fair, and accurate census,” compounding a well-established phenomenon of undercounting racial minorities, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups throughout U.S history.


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