Texas Could Lose Big If Census Undercounts Immigrants

Citizenship question could eat into $43 billion state receives in federal funds

Demonstrators rally at City Hall during A Day Without Immigrants, Feb. 16, 2017 (photo by Jana Birchum)

Latino lawmakers and advocacy groups in Texas are condemning the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census as a politicized maneuver designed to "strike fear in the hearts" of the immigrant community. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus and House Border Caucus, joined by other organizations last week at the Capitol, also cautioned that as one of the most populous states when it comes to immigrants, Texas stands to lose big.

The U.S. census is conducted every 10 years, and counts everyone to determine how to distribute federal funds and how to allocate congressional seats. Leave it to the Trump team to politicize the standard bureaucratic questionnaire: For the next census, the U.S. Department of Commerce tacked on a question about citizenship status, ostensibly to help them enforce the Voting Rights Act. But the question – especially amid ICE raids and Texas' Senate Bill 4 – will deter many from responding and lead to undercounting, jeopardizing billions of dollars. Given the fact that Texas is home to nearly 5 million immigrants, including an estimated 2 million who are undocumented, it would be one of the most affected states in the country.

Texas sees about $43 billion in census-guided federal funds annually that flow toward health care services, education, natural disaster aid, and roads and infrastructure. Lawmakers pointed to programs like SNAP, Head Start, and the school lunch program as examples of what's under threat.

Undercount­ing also means a potential loss of political power: Texas scooped up four new congressional seats after the last census and could gain three more this time around. "If Texas is undercounted, the bottom line is Texas loses," said MALC Chair Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso. "Our businesses lose, our communities lose, our families lose. This isn't about politics. This is about getting Texas its fair share of resources."

While the annual American Community Sur­vey does ask about citizenship, the question has not been included in the more detailed census for 70 years. Added this late in the game and untested by the rigorous census question process, it could mean serious repercussions. For every 1% decrease in response, the Census Bureau will have to spend an additional $55 million to collect info from nonrespondents. By constitutional mandate, the census must count all persons.

The change has already elicited lawsuits from 17 states including New York and Cali­for­nia. At the Capitol, Texas lawmakers called on state officials to do the same, though that's a long shot – not only does the state government support the question, First Assist­ant Attorney General Jeff Mateer urged the Census Bureau to include it. But Celina Moreno of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund suggested the group is considering a federal lawsuit.

Advocates also worry that if noncitizen respondents do answer, that could mean giving ICE block-level data of where undocumented people live. Jessica Azua, a DACA recipient and member of the Texas Organ­iz­ing Project, urged undocumented residents to fill out the census form, but skip the citizenship question.

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U.S. Census, Jessica Azua, Jeff Mateer, Celina Moreno, César Blanco

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