Advocates say Supreme Court census decision is only the beginning

Demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court as justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census, on Capitol H
Demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court as justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census, on Capitol H
J Scott Applewhite/AP/Shutterstock
Demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court as justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Advocates say Supreme Court census decision is only the beginning

The New York Immigration Coalition’s Steve Choi says “the clock is ticking” on citizenship question.
June 27, 2019

For more than a year, elected officials and immigration advocates have worried that a citizenship question on the upcoming 2020 census could drive participation down in New York – possibly costing the state a congressional seat and billions of dollars in federal funding. But that’s all suddenly a lot less likely following a decision announced Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

By a 5-4 margin, the court sided with New York and a coalition of other states that alleged that the Trump administration had failed to follow the proper administrative process for including the question, which opponents say would drive down census participation among immigrants. The ruling temporarily blocks the inclusion of the question, but does not preclude the administration from trying to resurrect the idea. That will be difficult – though not impossible – because the federal government will likely need to meet an October deadline in order to print census questionnaires on time. 

New York elected officials and activists said at a press conference in Manhattan that they will be watching the administration’s next moves on the matter closely. “The question really is whether or not the Commerce Department can make a determination as to whether or not this question should be on the census form in a timely fashion, whether or not they're going to push back in the day, the impact that it will have on the census, and individuals knocking on doors,” New York state Attorney General Letitia James said. “These are all questions that have yet to be decided. So we really need clarification.”

Advocates are preparing to join the city and state governments in pushing for as many people to participate in the census as possible, especially considering that New York had a lower turnout than the national average on the last census. Community-based organizations like the New York Immigration Coalition will play a big part in those efforts because of their connections to New York’s diverse immigrant communities.

City & State caught up with Steve Choi, executive director of the Immigration Coalition, which is leading dozens of organizations pushing for a full count of city and state residents called New York Counts 2020. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How big of a deal is this U.S. Supreme Court ruling?

It's a significant victory. Now, (the court is) going to remand it to the Commerce Department, they're going to give them an opportunity. But the clock is ticking. We need to get a billion pieces of paper printed in the next six months or so. For us, the most important thing is that we are going to need some fight with everything that we have to make sure the citizenship question stays off the census. 

We don't have a choice. We need to continue to fight. There's a larger fight to make sure that all of us are going to be counted. There already is this broader context where this administration has been trying to deport, suppress and otherwise target immigrant communities and communities of color. So in the face of these tremendous challenges, we're going to need an unprecedented coalition effort that brings together grassroots groups, the business community, labor community, elected officials to make sure that all New Yorkers are going to get counted.

What’s the big deal about including a citizenship question?

You can't separate this from the context. Right after Donald Trump took office, he instituted the Muslim ban, he authorized his deportation force to go after thousands of New Yorkers in their neighborhoods. We’re just coming off a weekend in which he threatened raids targeting thousands of New Yorkers. So it is absurd that immigrants are going to want to put their information on a piece of paper or on a website that goes directly to the federal government. The onus really is on all of us to make sure that we fight back against that and give the message that all New Yorkers need to stand up and be counted, despite what the administration is trying to do.

There's already a fear and some damage has been done. But I do think that if we are able to make sure that we are all united, that we're all growing together, and that we have an unprecedented level of coordination and resources, we can overcome these challenges.

The state and city have allocated tens of millions of dollars for census outreach efforts. How does this decision affect how community-based organizations will use that funding?

We were able to successfully win $20 million on the state level, and $40 million on the city level. So that is an unprecedented level of investment. That gives me hope and it gives me confidence that we can respond as a city and as a state to the challenges that lie in front of us. We are going to make sure that they have the best recommendations from the community about how this money should get spent. 

The single most effective thing in getting someone to fill out a census is someone who's trusted in the community who can tell them and explain to them exactly why. That is the single most effective way. Whatever the city and state does, we want them to understand that fact. We want them to ensure that the majority of their funds are going to support that particular method of outreach.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media.
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