A federal judge Tuesday knocked a planned citizenship question off the 2020 Census, but state officials remain concerned that the broader anti-immigrant climate could lead to an undercount of Latinos and noncitizens.
“You have all this anxiety out there and this constant negative rhetoric coming out of Trump,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a Democrat. “That’s not an environment for me to say, ‘Hi, I’m here to count you.’ The chances of having the door slammed in your face are pretty good.”
Massachusetts’ population has grown by more than 5 percent since 2010, and the state is not expected to lose any of its nine congressional seats, if the census count is accurate. But the population is growing because of an influx of immigrants, not because of births, said Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
“The stakes are quite high, and anything that leads people to distrust the federal government or discourages participation in the decennial census is bad news for states like Massachusetts,” Goodman said, noting that the count is used to apportion billions of dollars in federal funds.
Massachusetts was one of more than a dozen states that brought the lawsuit that led to Tuesday’s ruling, which may be appealed to the Supreme Court.
In the strongly worded decision, US District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman of New York found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the census, committed a “veritable smorgasbord” of federal administrative violations when he announced in March 2018 that he was reinstating a question about citizenship status on the 2020 Census.
“He failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices,” Furman wrote.
The census collected data about citizenship status between 1820 and 1950 but dropped the question in 1960 amid concerns that it made it more challenging to tally “hard-to-count” groups, particularly noncitizens and Latinos, wrote Furman, who was appointed by President Obama.
Ross contended that he was reviving the question to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act.
But critics said the citizenship question was partisan because it would help Republicans in the redistricting process if immigrants in urban areas who vote Democratic were not properly tallied.
Furman noted that the Census Bureau itself strenuously objected to Ross’s inclusion of the citizenship question, warning that it would harm the quality of the data it collected.
“Hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people will go uncounted in the census if the citizenship question is included,” Furman ruled.
Kelly Laco, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday, “We are disappointed and are still reviewing the ruling.”
“Secretary Ross, the only person with legal authority over the census, reasonably decided to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census in response to the Department of Justice’s request for better citizenship data, to protect voters against racial discrimination,” Laco said. “Our government is legally entitled to include a citizenship question on the census and people in the United States have a legal obligation to answer. Reinstating the citizenship question ultimately protects the right to vote and helps ensure free and fair elections for all Americans.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, who was part of a coalition of 18 attorneys general who sued Ross in April 2018, called Furman’s decision “a victory for all Americans and the rule of law.”
“The people of Massachusetts deserve to be fully counted in the census — all of us,” Healey said.
Galvin said that, even if the citizenship question is reinstated by the Supreme Court, local and state officials will have to find trusted voices in immigrant communities who can assure residents that their census answers will not be shared with immigration enforcement officials.
That message could be difficult to convey, Galvin said, at a time when the Trump administration has aggressively enforced federal immigration law, detaining undocumented people in courthouses and other government buildings.
“The only way you can rebut the fear is somebody they know and trust telling them this isn’t going to happen,” Galvin said.
Federal law forbids agencies such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement from accessing individual census information.
But Sarang Sekhavat, federal policy director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said he doesn’t necessarily trust the Trump administration to follow that law.
If the citizenship question is ultimately reinstated by the Supreme Court, Sekhavat said, immigrant advocates may urge residents to skip the question altogether.