The Constitution requires the government to count each person in the United States every 10 years, and the count affects everything from business decisions and local government policies to the allocation of congressional seats and Medicaid funding. At a Brennan Center for Justice event, civil rights and city planning experts discussed the Trump administration’s recent decision to include a question about citizenship in the 2020 census, the ramifications of the national tally, and the steps that can increase the likelihood of a successful count.
Vanita Gupta ‘01, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the push for a fair and accurate census “a fight to save our democracy,” noting that the consequences of the census will affect political and economic power across communities for a decade.
Gupta, along with the other panelists Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law; Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and Joseph J. Salvo, director of the NYC Department of Planning's Population Division, stressed that a question about citizenship raises fears in immigrant communities and may result in an undercount.
“It’s not just the total count of the Latino population,” said Saenz. “It’s getting the count right, demographic by demographic.” One risk of including a citizenship question is that undocumented family members may be left out of the count, said Saenz. He pointed to the need to communicate to the public that the confidentiality of the census data is constitutionally protected.
Salvo gave examples of how census figures are used to track health crises in New York City and even help libraries plan their book holdings. “If the numbers are not right, that has real consequences for us,” he said.