S.F. Attempts to Prevent New Census Question

Federal funds for California are at risk if non-citizens are too fearful of contributing to the 2020 Census.

Mayor London Breed criticizes the Trump administration’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census (Photo by Ida Mojadad)

If the Trump administration succeeds in adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, officials say California will lose out on critical federal funds for a decade.

San Francisco — the fourth most populous city in the state — is also at risk of losing federal funds due a fear-induced undercount among non-citizens. Local leaders sounded the alarm on Thursday at Chinese for Affirmative Action by imploring the public to send comments to the U.S. Department of Commerce in opposition of the question.

The deadline is Aug. 7.

“We need our communities to speak up. We need comments and numbers so large they cannot ignore us,” said Jonathan Stein, who leads Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s votings rights program. “This is our country, too.”

Data from the census informs congressional districts; funds for public education, housing, infrastructure, social programs, and hospitals; and investments by private businesses. Communities with high numbers of immigrants would be especially impacted if they don’t participate out of fear and are undercounted. 

“The Trump administration wants to weaponize the census to intentionally undercount minority and immigrant populations,” Mayor London Breed said. “It is undemocratic, un-American and fundamentally unjust.”

California did approve $90 million for outreach on the census, which City College of San Francisco Trustee Brigitte Davila says has made great strides to include undercounted communities. The citizenship question is not only unnecessary and unscientific but will undo that progress, she argues.

“Now what we’re faced with a people not turning it in at all,” Davila said. “It’s completely racist.”

The question is included in the annual American Community Survey but was last included on the decennial census in 1950 — seven years after the government used that information to implement Japanese internment. In March, the U.S. Commerce Department argued that it will make the census more comprehensive.

“Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the [1965 Voting Rights Act],” the commerce department stated. “Secretary [Wilbur] Ross determined that obtaining complete and accurate information to meet this legitimate government purpose outweighed the limited potential adverse impacts.”

Hours after the announcement, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a lawsuit. Another five lawsuits nationwide are fighting for its removal and last week, a federal judge ruled that New York’s lawsuit — which San Francisco joined — would be allowed to proceed.

But comments by U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman didn’t sound promising for the plaintiffs. While he noted that the argument that the change is discriminatory, he also said Ross has “broad authority” over the census and it might be unprovable that he did so unlawfully, NPR reported.

Assemblymember David Chiu said California’s leaders and community groups are still weighing different options should the citizenship question be included, which would ultimately launch a tough campaign to fill out the census regardless. For comparison, the Examiner reported that just one non-citizen resident of San Francisco has registered to vote in the school board elections since it became an option this year.

“An undercount harms everyone in the state,” Chiu said. “Everyone who cares about living in a free and fair democracy should raise their voice and oppose the citizenship question.”

Public comment can be submitted online until Aug. 7.

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