The Federal government has abdicated responsibility in pursuing a fair and accurate count. Will cities fill the gap?

Days before the Fourth of July, as you planned your barbecue or dreamed of poolside bliss, the Federal Court ruled that there was no evidence that the Trump Administration had not acted with “a strong showing of bad faith.”

The citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 census has critics arguing that the question will depress the count amongst immigrant communities fearing the census due to threats of targeting or deportation. As a result, the question poses a threat to an accurate and fair count, targets immigrant communities, and undermines democracy. While the Federal government’s actions are likely to depress participation, municipalities are incentivized to ensure the most accurate census count possible, and are working to encourage people to participate.

On July 3rd, Judge Jesse Furman, of the Southern District Court of New York challenged the Department of Justice to provide more documents by July 23rd to prove that the question was not ill-founded. This ruling comes as a response to the legislative action and leadership of a myriad of civil groups and local governments that argue the citizenship question is unconstitutional.

Following the 23rd deadline, Judge Furman allowed the lawsuit to proceed. Advocates, activists, and local governments now wait to hear if the question will remain on the census and further exacerbate an undercount of vulnerable communities.

An undercount in the census is nothing new but has grave repercussions on governance, particularly in cities. In what some say is a politically motivated decision, the census threatens the functioning of cities as they are reliant on federal funds, to the tune of approximately $675 billion in fiscal year 2019, to support programs like social services, affordable housing, infrastructure and more, the appropriation of which is dependent on the census.

The census also plays a vital role in the redistricting of electoral districts across the country and as a result the apportionment of elected officials to each state, city, and district. By virtue of the census being every ten years, decisions and counts of city populations will have an impact for years after the census. The repercussions of the citizenship question then goes far beyond the immediate threat of an undercount and results in the lack of representation and in turn disenfranchisement of immigrants for generations to come.

While the majority of the legislative action is taking place at the Federal level, cities are stepping up to protect their constituents, an increasing portion of whom are noncitizens due to inaction on immigration reform at the federal level. The bipartisan US Conference of Mayors has already filed a lawsuit to block the Trump Administration from adding the citizenship question onto the census, but the decision may be too little and worse, too late. In the present, cities and civic bodies are taking action to mitigate the negative impact of the question through a variety of education, outreach, and data initiatives.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MoIA) is leading the charge in New York City by coordinating community engagement and outreach initiatives across departments. First, with the launch of the Get Counted NYC campaign in advance of the census, the department will work with the Census Bureau to find local communities with low response rates and prioritize them as outreach areas. Studies like this one conducted by two academics from Princeton University 2011 show that when leaders encourage participation within their own community, people are more likely to participate even when the leader is a fictional character on a novela on Telemundo. MoIA will identify neighborhood leaders from these low-response and mostly low-income immigrant communities to encourage their constituents to participate in the census. Former census coordinator for the City of New York, Stacey Cumberbatch, stresses the importance of identifying these evangelizers, including small business owners and religious, and giving them the resources to canvass the area and encourage participation is crucial to mitigate the undercount.

Miami has a different approach entirely to mitigate the harm posed to immigrant communities. In an editorial for a community newspaper, Councilmember Anna Hochkammer urged her constituents to leave the citizenship question blank regardless of their citizenship status to “send a message to Washington, D.C.” and protest the “politicization of the census.” Another mayor, Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles has signed a series of twenty-one executive directives among other things creating Census Liaison roles in each municipal department dedicated to ensuring an accurate count of the city.

Cities are also uniquely capable of fighting back because of the diversity of civic actors they play host to. Universities like the University of Chicago have historically played a vital role in providing the data necessary to run effective public education campaigns that encourage people to complete the census. Furthermore, philanthropic organizations in Chicago, like Forefront, are working to increase 2020 census funding for outreach at the regional and local level.

Civic groups are also crucial in this fight. Director of the CUNY Mapping Service, Steven Romalewski, is one of the people behind the Hard to Count map. Mapping “hard to count” communities by documenting record low response rates across the country, the project provides assistance to local elected officials, community organizers, and State governments seeking funding for census outreach. To date, the Hard to Count map has worked with the California and Washington state governments, local municipalities and community organizations and even public libraries to create and distribute education and census material. New York Immigration Coalition too are running an initiative called New York Counts 2020, led by Elizabeth OuYang encouraging New Yorkers to submit a public comment and sign a petition to oppose the citizenship question.

There are numerous challenges between now and April 1st, census day, 2020. First, as Tom Wolff from the Brennan Center sees it, right now the problem is a moving target. Waiting for the Federal Court’s final decision, civic actors and advocates are in the dark about whether the question will remain on the census. Moreover, this uncertainty stops them from doing the work right now, on the ground, to get mobilized and ensure their constituents get counted.

Another challenge is that in conducting outreach and identifying local immigrant, more specifically undocumented, communities to mobilize, civic groups and local governments are vulnerable to Federal intervention. The recent revelation that the 1940 Census data was used by the Federal government to intern Japanese-Americans did not surprise many disenfranchised communities, but it certainly increased their distrust of the government, already at an all time high according to the Pew Research Center, and their tools like the census. Moreover, any outreach or canvassing attempts to map immigrant communities may be stored insecurely. Representatives from the Mozilla Foundation spoke earlier this Spring at RightsCon, a conference on human rights and technology, about the need for civic advocacy groups that work with vulnerable populations and collect information on them to prioritize shrewd data initiatives. These data initiatives look like securing networks, creating better digital infrastructure, and running data security trainings at the local level to ensure that any email they send to a fellow advocacy body or phone number they collect from an immigrant community leader is not vulnerable to misuse.

The citizenship question is more than just a decision made in bad faith for cities — it is an existential threat to their core functioning and the livelihoods of many of their constituents. Many of them are stepping up to fill the void the Federal government has left when it abdicated its constitutional mandate of a fair and accurate representation. Whether or not the question stays on the census, municipalities are building infrastructure and using a mix of initiatives to bolster an accurate census and protect vulnerable populations. A mix of education, outreach, and data initiatives will help cities ensure and bolster an accurate census in 2020 and protect vulnerable populations, but they need the public on their side too. If you’re reading this before or on August 7th, 2018, you may still have time to have your say and uphold what is as inherently American and constitutional as supporting your neighbor and apple pie. Consider submitting a public comment today to ban the citizenship question on the census.