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Power of New York, Texas hinges on immigrant count

Census will determine which states win or lose in redistricting

Texas could gain as many as three seats in Congress after the 2020 census — but not if the census response rate falls among noncitizens in the Lone Star State. (Courtesy Scott Dalton/U.S. Census Bureau)
Texas could gain as many as three seats in Congress after the 2020 census — but not if the census response rate falls among noncitizens in the Lone Star State. (Courtesy Scott Dalton/U.S. Census Bureau)

Two states that have the most on the line in the Supreme Court case over the citizenship question in the 2020 census are taking drastically different approaches to the decennial count next year.

New York and Texas could have the biggest swings in congressional representation after the 2020 census. New York is projected to lose two seats, and Texas could gain as many as three, according to forecasting by the nonpartisan consulting firm Election Data Services. 

With the stakes so high, New York has organized a statewide effort backed by public funds to counter potential falloff. At the same time, Texas is taking a much less aggressive approach, with state officials largely leaving response drives to independent groups and communities. 

Jeff Wice, a senior adviser to New York Counts 2020, a group of advocacy organizations working on census preparations, said the state’s effort has blown previous census cycles out of the water in terms of the money allocated and organizing statewide.

“We are seeing an unprecedented effort to organize the public sector, the private sector, the libraries — everyone is engaged,” Wice said. 

The Supreme Court’s justices are set to rule by the end of the week on whether to add the citizenship question as sought by the Trump administration. If they allow it, the response rate among noncitizens, including those in the U.S. without legal status, could fall by 5 percent or more, according to the Census Bureau.

That means enough people might not be counted in New York and Texas — each of which has a noncitizen population of about 10 percent — to affect reapportionment after 2020. 

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The impact from the question has been a point of debate, and the administration has sought to downplay the fears of opponents who went to court to challenge it. A Census Bureau spokesman noted in a statement that the census questionnaire will not ask about legal status, and that responses are private by law.

“We are developing a robust communications campaign and working with communities across the country to communicate that responding to the census is safe, easy and important,” the statement said.

Yet if the bureau’s estimate bears out, Texas could lose out on some or all of its projected gain in seats, and New York would almost certainly lose at least one despite its response efforts, according to analyses by California-based demographics and mapping firm Esri, the Public Policy Institute of California and the Urban Institute.

New York

Empire State officials and members of Congress have come out in force on the issue. The state has put forward $20 million for outreach, and New York City itself has committed $40 million.

The 27-member New York congressional delegation has more clout now than it has in a decade, and has sought to use it on Capitol Hill to pressure the administration over the citizenship question. 

Democrats from the state serve as Senate minority leader; chair the House Appropriations Committee and its Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, which oversees the Census Bureau; and serve in House leadership.

But for all their efforts — including nearly doubling funding for the 2020 census and including language to remove the question in the House fiscal 2020 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill — it remains an open question whether they’ll be able to defend their state’s seats and head off cuts in federal funding tied to census counts.

[Is the census ready for its online debut?]

It will likely be this fall, long after the Supreme Court decision and the printing of census questionnaires this summer, until final Census Bureau appropriations are enacted, undercutting New York’s push to stop the question through the spending process. 

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, who co-chairs the House Census Caucus and sits on the Oversight and Reform Committee, was adamant that the state won’t lose a seat if all of its citizens are counted.

Still, the New York Democrat said many immigrant communities could refuse to participate in the census, despite the state’s outreach. “I’m really worried about the feeling of intimidation, sort of [the] scare tactics that are out there,” she said.

The citizenship question is among other factors that made New York’s residents harder to count, but Democrats like freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said it hasn’t helped. Her district, covering parts of Queens and the Bronx, has more than 180,000 noncitizens, according to census data, in diverse communities like Jackson Heights.

The residents there speak close to 200 languages, and Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that many fled oppressive governments and fear providing their information. The online census forms will be provided in only a fraction of those languages, she noted, and many in the community don’t have the digital literacy needed to use the online response option.

“We know for a fact that in the communities that are already hard to reach, [the online response form] is going to be the least effective method,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Getting those communities to respond to the census will take a huge amount of on-the-ground organizing, she said, including finding the right workers and local volunteers who know the language and culture well enough to build trust.

“None of those boxes have been checked, and we are getting closer and closer to it being disastrous unless things change,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

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That’s where the burgeoning statewide effort to prepare for the census comes in, according to Jim Malatras, co-chairman of the New York State Complete Count Commission, an advisory panel composed of state officials and advocate groups. The commission is working to bridge gaps between local outreach, making sure there will be local centers for census response, state-provided translation services and more.

“You have all of these things in the mix while you still have these hard-to-count communities that have existed for decades, and they have always have historic undercounts, and it is all coming together for this census,” Malatras said.


Efforts to prepare for the census count in the Lone Star State have not had the heft of the state government behind them, yet.

That could make the count for the growing state more difficult, according to Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro.

If the Supreme Court keeps the citizenship question, “it’s going to hurt people the administration would consider political friends in conservative places like Texas,” the Texas Democrat said.

“Texas is supposed to be picking up three congressional seats, but all of the malfeasance by the Trump administration could cost Texas some political power,” he said.

[It’s not just the citizenship question. 2020 census faces other woes]

GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has not created a state complete count committee, which the majority of states have set up, and the Legislature wrapped up its session for the year earlier this month without allocating any funds to support the census.

At the same time, Texas lacks a sitting secretary of state, who normally serves as a point of contact for the Census Bureau. The former acting secretary, David Whitley, resigned in February amid a controversial effort to purge purported noncitizens from the state’s voter rolls.

A representative from the secretary of state’s office could not be reached for comment about cooperation with the Census Bureau.

In place of a statehouse initiative, local governments and nonprofits have tried to patch together their own efforts, work that has intensified in the last few months, according to Ann Beeson, CEO of the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities advocacy group. The center earlier this year called on the state Legislature to allocate at least $6 million for census outreach. 

She said some communities, like San Antonio and Dallas, are further ahead than others in preparation. She noted, however, that those cities still face a challenge because they have larger numbers of noncitizens.

Beeson pointed out that Texas has also a high number of mixed-status households, meaning that while one respondent may be a citizen, they have relatives who are legal or undocumented immigrants.

Adding the question is “going to have a ripple effect way beyond the undocumented immigrants,” Beeson said, making whole swathes of the state harder to count.

A number of Republicans in the state, including Rep. Chip Roy, the ranking member on the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee that oversees the census, are not yet raising concerns about the impact of asking about citizenship.

Roy said his constituents “think we ought to count heads and also ask citizenship. I don’t think this is all that complicated a question.” 

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