New census question raises concerns in Idaho: 'This is offensive. This is taking us back.'

How the U.S. census will change in 2020

The 2020 census "will be unlike any other in our nation's history" and save billions of dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency says it will use different innovative tools to get the most accurate and cost effective count. This me
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The 2020 census "will be unlike any other in our nation's history" and save billions of dollars, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency says it will use different innovative tools to get the most accurate and cost effective count. This me

The U.S. Commerce Department’s decision to add a controversial citizenship question to the 2020 Census has caused some alarm and uncertainty in fast-growing Idaho, which has a rapidly increasing Hispanic population and areas that researchers say are difficult to count.

The decision to include immigration status was announced Monday. On Thursday, the Census Bureau delivered its planned questions for the 2020 Census to Congress.

The nine-word citizenship question is at once innocuous and highly charged: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

To Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, “this is offensive. The ultimate goal was to make sure everyone in our state was counted. We’ve been so careful for so many years. This is taking us back.”

An accurate count matters because official decisions are made based on data from the census – the once-a-decade effort to count everyone in the country — and from the American Community Survey, an annual count by the Census Bureau using a sample size of 3.5 million people.

The data is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding every year. Political boundaries from Congressional districts to school boards are drawn based on census numbers. Businesses use the data too.

‘There’s no trust’

Gonzalez is a veteran at dealing with the Census Bureau. In 2000, she said, the Idaho count was deeply flawed and “did a really poor job of counting all populations in Idaho.” Five years later, in an effort to improve the 2010 count, “our agency took charge in working with the U.S. Census Bureau and having conversations with them about what we failed in, in 2000.”

The commission formed a statewide task force, she said, whose members represented all of the marginalized communities that are historically undercounted. Documented and undocumented immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries are among those populations, as are refugees and Native Americans. The commission pushed for bilingual census takers. The result, she said, was a far more accurate account of Idaho’s population.

Gonzalez said she feared that the progress made in Idaho will be lost with the new question following the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on legal and illegal immigration, build a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States and punish so-called sanctuary states and cities that do not cooperate with the Department of Homeland Security.

“There’s no trust,” Gonzalez said. “With this being added to that, it’s almost going to be impossible. I don’t know if I want to be a part of collecting that data, because there’s already the trust issue. … With our own history with the census and how challenging it is to get people who are documented or undocumented to fill out the census, it’s hard.”

The Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs is a nonpartisan state agency that provides services to Hispanics and acts as a bridge between Hispanics and government.

Census Citizenship
The 2010 Census and other censuses since 1960 have not asked about citizenship on the short forms that most households receive. A citizenship question is included in the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which samples the population. Ross D. Franklin AP

‘A common-sense’ question

Alejandra T. Cerna Rios, policy analyst for Idaho Voices for Children, said the citizenship question will lead to lower response rates and unreliable data on immigration and mixed-status households.

“To understand how best to meet the needs of all Idaho kids and families, we need a reliable and accurate count that includes all of the kids in our communities,” said Cerna Rios, whose Boise-based nonprofit advocates on issues involving children’s health, safety, education and economic security. “That’s why any move that risks inaccuracy is of concern. The count is used for 10 years after.”

As of July 2017, the most recent census estimate available, Idaho has a population of 1.717 million, up from 1.568 million in 2010 and 1.294 million in 2000. The agency pegged the Hispanic populationshare at 12.3 percent in 2016, the most recent estimate available for race and ethnicity. That’s up from 11.2 percent in 2010 and 7.9 percent in 2000. Hispanics make up the largest racial or ethnic group in Idaho after non-Hispanic whites, who account for 82.4 percent of the population.

In December, the Department of Justice asked the Census Bureau to add a citizenship question to help agents enforce a part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965that “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership in one of the language minority groups” identified elsewhere in the act.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a Monday letter that officials reviewed the request and decided that “the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden” that the question would impose “outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, reiterated his support for the citizenship question this week, joined by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma. “It is imperative that the data gathered in the census is reliable,” Cruz said, “given the wide ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy. A question on citizenship is a reasonable, common-sense addition to the census.”

Census Citizenship California
People living in the U.S. without legal permission wait outside the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles in 2012. California is suing the Trump administration over its decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 U.S. Census. California and other big states with large immigrant populations could lose congressional seats if noncitizens avoid the census because they are scared to answer the question. Damian Dovarganes AP

Researchers list hard-to-count areas

Researchers at the Center for Urban Research of the City University of New York say some areas of the country have census tracts that will be difficult to count. The center’s interactive map of hard-to-count areas includes some tracts in Idaho. Among them are Tract 9400 in Bingham County, which is 14 percent Hispanic and 82 percent Native American; and Tract 9602 in Power County, which is 40 percent Hispanic.

Jeffrey Lyons, an assistant professor in the School of Public Service at Boise State University, said he does not think any undercount would be large enough to affect Idaho’s congressional boundaries.

That’s more of a California problem. The Golden State has already sued the Trump administration to block the citizenship question, which California Attorney General Xavier Becerra called “unconstitutional.” Scott Graf, spokesman for Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, declined to comment.

But Lyons said that, if large numbers of Hispanic residents decline to participate because they fear the federal government, the census data could be tarnished.

“For me as a data person, there’s a data-quality issue,” Lyons said. The census is “the foundation for all of our data-driven understanding of the country, our demographic understanding, the understanding of health outcomes.”

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga

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