Asian American Civil Rights, Legal Groups Push Back On Census Citizenship Question

Kimberly Yam

As the future of the 2020 census’ citizenship question is under debate in the Supreme Court, several Asian American groups have attempted to push back on the possibility. 

Earlier this month, more than 60 bar associations and Asian American civil rights groups filed an amicus brief opposing the Trump administration’s addition of a question asking about citizenship on the upcoming census. Those opposed to adding the question fear it will jeopardize response rates and lead to inaccurate counting.

“For Asian Americans — who are already often ignored, dismissed or viewed as ‘perpetual foreigners’ in our native or chosen homes — being counted by the United States census is especially meaningful,” said Jerry Vattamala, director of the democracy program at Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the group that spearheaded the amicus brief along with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. 

“When we are counted, we are recognized, and we have a voice,” Vattamala added. “When we are not counted, we are effectively erased from public discourse and consideration for the next 10 years.” 

In the brief, the groups argue the community is composed of a significant number of noncitizens, both authorized and unauthorized. In fact, more than a third of all Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs), or green card holders, are from Asia. Many from the Pacific Islander community, including the Marshallese community, have a specific distinction in which they’re permitted to work and live in the U.S. 

As the Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments over the 2020 census citizenship question, protesters gathered outside demanding to not include the controversial citizenship question in the next census.  (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Asian immigrants also make up roughly 13 percent of the total undocumented population in the U.S., as well as a sizable number of people eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Ultimately, the vast majority of the community has direct experience, or family with direct experience, with the immigration system.

“Including a citizenship question could lead any person — even if he or she is a citizen — to think twice before discussing immigration status with the government, for fear of exposing noncitizen relatives,” the brief explains. 

The brief mentions that many Asian American and Pacific Islanders are already distrustful of the census as it is. Asian Americans are already the least familiar with the census and least likely to fill it out compared to other groups, according to a 2018 survey. Moreover, many members of the community reported being concerned that the information in the census would not be kept confidential.

The brief also points out that the Census Bureau acknowledges many of the challenges that come with counting the Asian American population. In a 2016 report, the bureau admitted that many Asians have fears of government and language barriers that would keep them from participating in the census. It also noted that because many immigrants come from countries that do not have census systems or had governments that weaponized the data against communities, they are more likely to be distrustful of the survey. What’s more, many Asian American families live in “unconventional” households that often include extended family and are difficult to count. 

“Including an untested citizenship question in the 2020 Census risks exacerbating the problems the Census Bureau itself identified early on as affecting the AAPI community in particular,” the brief notes. 

Vattamala explained to HuffPost that the census has lasting impacts. A GW Institute of Public Policy report revealed that more than $800 billion of federal funding in fiscal year 2016 relied on census data.

“The census has many far-reaching implications, not only for political representation, but also for determining funding for a wide range of programs and projects, in areas such as health care, education, and basic infrastructure,” Vattamala said. “Census data is also critical for decision-making by local governments, community organizations and businesses.”

It’s crucial to mention more than one-third of AAPIs have limited English proficiency, defined as a limited ability to read, speak, write or understand English. And language assistance programs are often determined based on census data, the democracy program director said. 

While the census bureau itself acknowledged the existing challenges to accurately counting the Asian American community, Secretary Wilbur Ross, who proposed the question, “made his decision to add the citizenship question without ever mentioning its potential impact on Asian Americans,” Vattamala said. 

“The exclusion of AAPIs from the census conversation is part of a larger, ongoing pattern of marginalization of the Asian American community,” he said. “When politicians, members of the media, and other public figures discuss different groups’ views on important issues, Asian Americans are often ignored, or simply relegated to the category of ‘Other.’”

While the Supreme Court heard arguments this week regarding the census, it will likely hand down a formal decision in June. Vattamala said that by blocking the citizenship question, “the Supreme Court would also send a message that even in a fraught political climate, the Court will remain a reliable bastion to protect against procedural abuses by the government, particularly when many groups, and Asian Americans in particular, are already anxious about the government’s potential misuse of census data.”

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.