The United States Census is imperative to our borough. The Constitution requires the government to enumerate the number of people living in the Unites States every ten years and to use the data to apportion the seats in Congress among the states. The calculation is based on total resident population, which means citizens and non-citizens alike, and it generally shifts power between the states, once a decade, in line with population and migration trends. The current conventional wisdom seems to indicate that New York is expected to lose one seat in the House of Representatives. The Census is also a means that determines how Federal funds are distributed. That is why the count has to be accurate.
But there is a tremendous problem brewing. The US Department of Commerce has decided to restore a citizenship question to the census form that is prompting concerns that participation will be hindered especially for immigrant and minority groups who are expressing unwillingness to respond to that question. In fact, they won’t even open the door to census takers for fear of governmental scrutiny and possible ICE reprisals. This could lead to possibly undercounting of people living in the United States, especially here in Queens whose resident population consists of 46% foreign-speaking.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross acknowledged concerns about decreased response rates in a memorandum he issued; but he said that asking about citizenship would enhance the results by helping calculate the percentage of the population eligible to vote. Ross said that his department added the citizenship question at the request of the Department of Justice, to be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
President Trump went even further by stating, “The 2020 Census would be a pointless waste of money. Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all-important Citizenship Question?”
A number of states (New York being one of them) and civil rights groups sued, arguing that the citizenship question, which hasn’t been included in the Census application since 1950, would create an environment of intimidation for immigrant families, many of whom are undocumented, and will cause these individuals to be reluctant to answer the census survey.
Two Federal judges have already ruled the citizenship question as illegal. Now it is going to the Supreme Court. On April 23, the United States Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments on this matter and is expected to issue a ruling by June.
An undercut of the population would have far-reaching implications for Queens. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz stated, “Queens is the most culturally diverse county in the United States and this is a source of strength and pride for us all. Yet, the diversity poses unique challenges when it comes to ensuring that every Queens resident is counted in the decennial Census.” This new wrinkle could skew the data that is used to determine how many congressional representatives each state gets, and their representation in state legislatures and other local government bodies. It would shape how billions of dollars a year are allocated, including for schools, hospitals, and other essential services.
Queens was definitely undercounted ten years ago, and to try to prevent this from happening again, the Queens Borough President has formed the Queens Complete Count Committee (of which I am a member). It is “a network of community leaders who will use their community connections and relationships to help maximize the 2020 Census count in Queens.”
Last time, I advised the community groups, with whom I spoke, to make sure they completely answer the Census application, and then one would not have to fear any workers coming to one’s door. This year, it can be conveniently done online. Whichever means one uses to answer the Census – by mail, online, or at the door – is perfectly fine, as long as it is understood how important it is to see to it that it is done for all our sakes. This is our only opportunity for ten years. Let’s not squander our chances for the betterment of our community and borough.
Cynthia Zalisky is a community activist who resides in Kew Gardens Hills.