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Photo courtesy of Congresswoman Grace Meng's office
Photo courtesy of Congresswoman Grace Meng's office
Congresswoman Grace Meng at an Appropriations Committee meeting on March 20.

Elected officials who represent Queens are voicing their opinions about a controversial decision by the U.S. Department of Commerce to include a question about citizenship on the upcoming 2020 census.

On March 26, the Commerce Department announced the decision in a statement that said the change came in response to a request by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to add the citizenship question to help enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Respondents to the 2020 survey will now have to reveal whether or not they are U.S. citizens, a move that the DOJ argues will benefit section 2 of the VRA, which protects minority voting rights.

In a memorandum explaining his decision, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that the department could not definitively determine how the citizenship question might affect response rates, but the value of more accurate data outweighs any negative impact.

“The citizenship data provided to DOJ will be more accurate with the question than without it, which is of greater importance than any adverse effect that may result from people violating their legal duty to respond,” Ross wrote. “To minimize any impact on decennial census response rates, I am directing the Census Bureau to place the citizenship question last on the decennial census form.”

Critics of the decision were quick to point out this week that amid an immigration debate that is more widespread than ever, asking census respondents to state their citizenship status would almost certainly cause immigrant communities to opt out. In fact, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced in a statement on March 27 that he will be leading a multi-state lawsuit to block the Commerce Department’s move, which he said would “create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities.

Several representatives of Queens shared that opinion. Congresswoman Grace Meng was present for an Appropriations Subcommittee meeting on March 20 in which Ross discussed the citizenship question. Meng, who previously sent a letter to Ross in January urging him to reject the DOJ’s proposal, pressed Ross during the hearing because he had not made the decision yet.

When Ross chose to move forward with the proposal six days later, Meng released a statement that said the decision was “deeply troubling and reckless.”

“Asking respondents if they are citizens will likely decrease response rates in immigrant communities, and as a result produce an inaccurate and incomplete count that will impact the distribution of federal resources, and the number of Congressional districts that each state receives,” Meng said.

In his memorandum, Ross explained that his research and discussions with stakeholders and former Census Bureau officials showed there is no empirical data that could prove a citizenship question would affect response rates. A question about citizenship has not been regularly included on the census since 1950, though it has been included intermittently since then, and smaller surveys have regularly asked about citizenship.

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who has been outspoken about her disagreements with the Trump administration on immigration issues, took an even more pointed stance in the census question debate when she spoke at a rally on March 28.

“They are trying to say that when it comes to distributing $700 billion in health, food security, transportation and education funding – that we will discount our immigrant neighbors,” Velazquez said. “That is immoral! It is unacceptable! And it cannot stand. Make no mistake, this is a calculated effort to under count immigrants and meddle with and influence our Census.”

At the state level, Senator Joseph Addabbo also released a statement saying that he believes “it is a mistake” to include a citizenship question on the census. New York has one of the highest immigrant populations in the country, and Addabbo said that “If these numbers are inaccurate, many states and local communities may not receive much-needed funding or services that all the residents need and deserve.”

Even down to the City Council — which oversees part of the metro area estimated to have the largest illegal immigrant population based on a Pew Research Center study — Councilman Robert Holden agreed, though he can see both sides of the coin.

“This is a double-edged sword,” Holden, a member of the Council’s immigration committee, said in a statement to QNS. “I think the question would be useful to have, but the point of the census is to obtain as much demographic information as possible, and I don’t know that people will answer that question honestly. I think it might even discourage non-citizens from filling out the census at all for fear of being targeted, which would skew population information needed to make effective policy or govern on a federal level.”

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