Civil rights groups turn to locals to ramp up pressure on Congress to undo citizenship question
WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers and civil rights organizations are turning to churches, community groups and college campuses to help pressure Congress to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census.
“We have to keep the pressure on,” said Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “We have to show that this has a negative effect not just on the communities of color, but on businesses, on states and the way in which they operate. There will be tremendous reverberations throughout the United States if that citizenship question were to remain.’’
The decision to add the controversial question to the Census has been a hot topic on Capitol Hill, where civil and voting rights groups, including Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the National Urban League, recently hosted panels focused on the issue.
Earlier this month, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus denounced the decision by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to add the question and urged him to reverse it.
Democrats introduced bills to undo the decision — despite slim chances of passage in the Republican-controlled Congress.
But civil rights groups hope to spur local organizations to contact their representatives in the days leading up to a May 8 hearing on the Census before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“We’re going to organize churches,'' said Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y. "We’re going to organize community-based organizations and we’re going to fight this where we know how to best do it — on the streets of New York, Texas and everywhere.’’
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said Democrats will take the fight over adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census to the courts, the halls of Congress and to the streets of local communities. (Photo: Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY)
“I’m here on a mission to enlist your help and your voices,’’ he said. “The same folks who don’t want people of color to vote, don’t want us to be counted.’’
Civil rights groups argue the question is unnecessary and will lead to an inaccurate count because some people may be afraid to fill out the form.
Supporters of the decision argue the question should be asked.
“I want to know how many American citizens and how many legal voters we have in this country,’’ said Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La.
“If we don’t know how many actual citizens we have then we don’t know where we need to divide districts,'' he said. "We don’t know how many representatives each state needs. Right now it’s based on just numbers of populations and some of those are illegal citizens.’’
Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., who serves on the subcommittee, also supports the administration’s decision.
“Rep. Roby believes in the importance of the constitutional process of accurately counting our nation's population,’’ said Emily Taylor-Johnson, a spokeswoman for Roby.
The Justice Department asked Census officials in December to “reinstate’’ the question, which was last asked in 1950 on the short-form Census questionnaire most people receive. Justice officials said the information would help in enforcing a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act designed to protect against discrimination in voting.
Ross said last month that having the citizenship information will "permit more effective enforcement" of the Voting Rights Act.
Ron Jarmin, acting director of the Census Bureau, told the Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, last week that it’s impossible to predict what impact the citizenship question will have on the response rate.
He said even if respondents don’t answer the question, those surveys will be counted. But he urged people to fill out the form completely.
“We want every resident in the country to fill out the Census regardless of what questions are on the form,’’ he said.
The count, which takes place every 10 years, is key to redistricting and allocating federal resources to communities.
National civil rights groups, state attorneys general and other organizations have filed lawsuits over Wilbur's decision. Those groups are also turning to grassroots organizations for help.
One key partner is the faith community, which civil rights leaders call a “trusted institution,” particularly in black and Hispanic communities.
“We are all created by God and we therefore deserve to be recognized by the government and counted by the government,’’ said Heather Taylor, organizing and advocacy director at Faith in Public Life, a national network of faith and clergy leaders.
Taylor said 600 faith leaders signed an online petition earlier this month calling for the question to be removed. The group plans to recirculate the petition in the days leading up to the May hearing. Some members may also submit testimony, Taylor said.
“It’s important to lend a moral voice and to stir the conscience of this nation around these questions,’’ she said.
Other groups have also stepped in.
Some black sororities and fraternities said they will also join the effort.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent bipartisan federal agency, recently urged Ross to reverse his decision, calling it "alarming” that he did not first get enough information about the potential impact.
“Critical enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws depends in part on a true and fair count of all Americans, not a process that is jeopardized by a hasty decision to include a question that could have far-reaching ramifications for the health of our country,’’ the group wrote in an April 20 letter to Ross.