‘Our Government Added This Question to Chill Immigrants’ Participation’ – CounterSpin interview with Liz OuYang on 2020 Census

Janine Jackson interviewed Liz OuYang about the 2020 census for the November 9, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.


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Janine Jackson: Vann Newkirk at the Atlantic writes:

White nationalist groups decrying “white genocide” and fearing demographic shifts, anti-immigrant populism, the long reach of old Jim Crow, and plain-old backroom political strategizing all come together here, at the unlikely nexus of the census. Because the census, at its core, is the key to democracy.

Well, we’re not accustomed to thinking of the 10-year survey as crucial in shaping our day-to-day lives. But if it weren’t, it’s unlikely that it would be being debated in federal court, as it is right now. So what’s going on?

Liz OuYang is a longtime civil rights attorney and advocate, and a consultant to the New York Immigration Coalition. She’s also adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights  and New York University’s College of Arts and Science. She joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Liz OuYang.

Liz OuYang: Thank you very much. Thank you for including me.

JJ: Well, we won’t assume that listeners know the fundamentals. It may have been a long time since civics class. And it’s also not like we talk about the census very much. So what is the relationship between this survey and elections like last Tuesday? Why is the census so important in the democratic project?

LOY: As you said, Janine, I can’t underscore enough how the census means power and is the core of democracy, because it’s based on the census results that districts are redrawn and, as we saw the importance of the Electoral College in the 2016 election, electoral votes are also distributed to different states according to census and population tallies. So it is absolutely critical. And the census, in addition to redistricting and distribution of electoral votes, is so critical because $800 billion a year are distributed according to the census for the next 10 years.

And so if you think about, if you have a child that’s age five, critical services that they may need the next 10 years—whether it’s good roads to get to their school, whether it’s certain health benefits, educational and other types of services, where their hospital is located in their neighborhood, etc.—it’s based on census results.

JJ: So why, then, is the New York Immigration Coalition in federal court, along with states and municipalities and other advocacy groups? Why are you in federal court right now?

Elizabeth OuYang

Liz OuYang: “The 2020 census has been polarized, has been politicized, by the current administration, and that really puts the integrity, the credibility, the reliability of the census at stake.”

LOY: The current administration chose, at the last minute, to add a citizenship question to the decennial census. This will be a chilling factor on participation, especially given the last year and a half of unrelenting immigrant-bashing by the highest office in this country.

If there is a chilling factor like the citizenship question, certain people will not come out and complete that census. If they don’t complete it, there will be an undercount. And that undercount is going to affect this whole nation, because every valid survey that’s done always compares their results with the census.

Businesses rely on census data as to where they employ their resources to areas where populations have grown, jobs, etc. are dependent upon the census. And so if  there’s an inaccurate census because there’s an undercount, that means the data will not be reliable. And it’s based on that data that $800 billion a year is distributed across the country.

We feel that the census is supposed to be nonpartisan. It’s one of the few things that we as a nation can come together, and do together, to unify us. We need a count, the count of all persons living in the United States. And the 2020 Census has been polarized, has been politicized, by the current administration, and that really puts the integrity, the credibility, the reliability of the census at stake.

JJ: I would point out that people who work with polls, like the Roper Center at Cornell University, are upset about adding a question that asks, “Are you a citizen?” Because they recognize that chilling effect that you’re talking about. It’s not really murky. There’s every reason to imagine that if you ask a question about citizenship, that some people will not respond. And so folks who rely on polls are saying, “Well, that won’t be real data. We won’t get actual information.”  And I just would underscore for folks that, as far as I understand it, the courts have said over the years that redistricting and congressional appointments should be based on population, and not on citizen population, right?

LOY: That’s correct. And, Janine, not only experts in the field, but six prior Census directors, Republican and Democrat, have advised the current administration:  Don’t do it, don’t add this question.  And they have gone ahead and done it anyway. And so I think that’s pretty telling.

And what’s really about to come out in the trial soon is Secretary Ross of the Commerce Department, which oversees the census, has given inconsistent statements under oath as to his intentions as to why he put the citizenship questions on there.

The court trial right now that’s going on is a consolidation of two cases: one by the New York attorney general’s office on behalf of 18 states, the other one was filed by the ACLU, in which nonprofit groups are the plaintiffs, including New York immigration Coalition, Make the Road, etc.  And the nonprofit organizations’ lawsuit, in addition to the claims raised by the New York attorney general’s office, has brought a  claim for intentional discrimination, that our government has added this question deliberately to chill immigrants’ participation, and to draw districts that favor Republicans.

Wilbur Ross (photo: White House)

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

JJ: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, as you’ve just said, he claimed to a congressional hearing that he was asked by the Justice Department to add this citizenship question. But then emails revealed that in fact, he, in consultation with Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach, of all folks, sought to actually reintroduce that question himself.

And it does matter. I think the way media carve things up is like, there’s a partisan thing happening at this top level, and then we’re down in the neighborhoods. But, of course, when people with clipboards show up at your door, it matters very much what sort of government they are seen as representing. And I don’t think anyone would question that this is a White House that has made clear that they don’t like nonwhite immigrants—documented, undocumented, naturalized—it doesn’t matter. And that will translate to census takers.

LOY: Absolutely. And that has been raised in the trial so far, in the sense that the Census Bureau itself recognizes that a citizenship question is a “sensitive question,” and Census Bureau’s own research has shown that a citizenship question will decrease self-response rates.

The difference that this trial is going to bear out hinges on whether or not the federal government’s nonresponse follow-up plan to people who don’t complete the census is an accurate substitute, and an adequate substitute.

So far, the New York attorney general’s and ACLU witnesses that have gone forward so far are unanimous, and feel that the federal government’s effort to deal with nonresponse is not adequate. You need someone who understands the communities, who has the trust of the communities, who has cultural competence, dealing particularly with hard-to-count communities, and the Census Bureau is having a difficult time recruiting those enumerators.

And one of those issues this administration is trying to do: Secondly, the Census Bureau is not allowing people who are Green Card–holders, who are lawful permanent citizens, to serve as a enumerators. And in a city, for instance, like New York City, where you have so many different languages spoken, it is often people who are Green Card–holders who have the ability to go from English to a non-English language, and go back and translate from a non-English language back to English. And they’re not allowed, in the 2020 census, to apply for the enumerator position. And so that is a barrier right there.

In addition, other plans that the federal government has to deal with the expected decline in response rates, because of adding a citizenship question, are woefully inefficient. One is to go to proxies, like the landlord, when landlords may not be forthcoming of who lives in an apartment.

Then they said, they’re going to use administrative records. Well, certain administrative records represent certain segments of our community better than others. For instance, if they use the city’s financial records and taxes and so forth, certain groups may not be as well represented on those administrative records. They’ve tried to test it out, and in different parts of the city, there’s been a 20 percent error rate. So the administrative record may say that this housing unit is vacant, but when they went out, there were people living there. So there clearly needs to be more pre-testing with respect to the use of administrative records.

The last thing that the federal government is planning to use to help substitute for the self-response decline is imputation. That means, look at other people in the neighborhood, based on what their social demographics are, you impute that to the household that you weren’t able to get information from.

Well, in New York City, where you have many neighborhoods where there are multiple ethnicities and races, using imputation is best used when you have homogeneity in the neighborhood. But if you have a lot of diversity in the neighborhood, that imputation is often going to lead to false positives.

And so that’s why it’s critical that, on the decennial census, when you only have like ten questions, they not have a question in there that’s going to chill participation, because you want people to self-respond, because self-responses get the most accurate data

JJ: So it sounds like a dry, diagnostic question. But in fact, it’s a really real, live, living question, where getting it wrong is going to harm some people, is going to punch in a particular direction, and I guess that’s what folks are seeing.

LOY: Correct.

JJ: What happens if federal courts decide that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was within his power to add this question, and they ignore the skulduggery behind it, and it goes in? What kind of work will we need to do then?

LOY: We are optimistic that this question will be removed from the census. So far, all the evidence has pointed to its removal. Government’s own research points to its removal, and we are optimistic that this will be removed.

The government has not followed its own vetting procedures for putting a question on the census. They began, way back as far as 2016, to begin to pretest these questions. The citizenship question has not been pretested; the one pretest that they did of the questions was in the spring of this year, in Rhode Island, and the citizenship question was not on there. There is glaring evidence that they have not followed their own procedures.

And so I think we have a strong case, and we are optimistic that this question will be removed from the 2020 census.

JJ: All right, then; we’ve been speaking with Liz OuYang, civil rights attorney and advocate, and consultant to the New York Immigration Coalition; also adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and NYU’s College of Arts and Science. Liz OuYoung, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

LOY: You’re welcome; thank you.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.