Congress

Citizenship question hangs over census preparations, panel told

Minority groups say fears linger even after question dropped by Trump administration

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., holds a news conference in the Longworth House Office Building on Oct. 21, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Although the Trump administration dropped a citizenship question from this year's census, minority groups told the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Thursday that the question's specter has haunted preparations for a national count that could miss millions of residents.

John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, called the citizenship question a “five-alarm fire” for groups working with immigrants. He said lingering fear could potentially reduce immigrant participation in a count that will determine the distribution of 435 congressional seats and influence the flow of $1.5 trillion in federal funds annually. Census operations formally begin later this month, and Yang and other committee witnesses said the agency has not done enough to counter the damage caused by the debate.

“This is the census we are talking about, trying to determine the population of the United States and anything that takes away from that should not be part of the mission,” Yang said. “The fact that this question was introduced has caused damage to these communities.”

Controversy over the question has added to concern by Democrats over the administration’s conduct of the census. Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said the agency has not addressed issues ranging from citizenship question fears to preparations for its internet portal. She said Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham will participate in another hearing scheduled Feb. 12.

“We are forced to ask whether the failure to address these concerns is incompetence or intentional,” Maloney said.

The committee's top Republican, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, pushed back, saying that Democrats ignored real problems with the census process in favor of attacking President Donald Trump over the addition of the question. Jordan also got into an extended exchange with Yang, whose organization has sued to stop the collection of citizenship data through an executive order, about the impact of the question. 

“Rather than conducting similar meaningful oversight, the Democrats have spent a year trying to stop one simple question ‘Are you a citizen?’” Jordan said.

Other Republican members said the panel has not done enough to deal with the impact of switching to an online count.

Panel witnesses, including Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights CEO Vanita Gupta and Urban League CEO Marc Morial, said the switch to a primarily online count presents risks for rural residents. Gupta said these residents frequently lack internet access and literacy needed to complete the census.

“Rural Americans and older Americans may experience greater vulnerability and undercount due to the challenges of the first high tech census,” she said.

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The Census Bureau has said it will mail paper questionnaires in areas without internet access and send workers to knock on doors where people don’t respond.

Morial said the agency has yet to answer basic questions about its hiring of those door-knockers and the preparation for its online portal.

“We don’t want to have another Healthcare.gov with the census,” Morial said, referring to the famously rocky launch of the government's health care exchange during the Obama administration

“Amen, amen,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. 

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