To some that might seem like a simple question to put on the 2020 census, but to some already undercounted populations it perpetuates fear and creates a real possibility for their communities to lose resources.
A federal judge in New York ruled earlier this week  it’s also unlawful.
That ruling has been encouraging for local advocates who believe the question is exclusionary, would lead to the 2020 census producing inaccurate data and ultimately, North Carolina losing federal funding and fair political representation.
“We’re of course extremely happy with the court’s ruling, however we also recognize the fact that the very idea of the citizenship question … caused a lot of harm to the integrity of the system,” said Stacy Carless, Executive Director of the N.C. Counts Coalition  — a group that works to achieve a complete and accurate census count for North Carolina. “There’s already a lot of work to undo the harm that’s been done.”
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman wrote in a 277-page opinion that there was no dispute that the Constitution, the Census Act and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) allow the Secretary of Commerce broad discretion over the design and administration of the decennial census, but he must also follow the procedures mandated by law.
“And more broadly, the exercise of his statutory authority must ‘be reasonable and reasonably explained,’” the opinion states. “Measured against these standards, Secretary [Wilbur] Ross’ decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census – even if it did not violate the Constitution itself – was unlawful for a multitude of independent reasons and must be set aside.”
Furman found that Ross, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, violated the APA in multiple, independent ways, including by not collecting data through the acquisition and use of “administrative records” instead of “direct inquiries” on a survey such as the census.
“Additionally, Secretary Ross’s decision to add a citizenship question was ‘arbitrary and capricious’ on its own terms: He failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices — a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations,” the opinion states.
The census  occurs every 10 years and provides a count of all individuals living in the U.S. The last census in 2010 asked 10 questions about characteristics such as age, sex and homeownership status. There hasn’t been a broad citizenship question since at least 1950.
Carless said there are 767,000 foreign-born individuals in North Carolina, 300,000 of whom have already become naturalized citizens. She believes the citizenship question would significantly deter participation and would result in far less accurate data in the state.
To give context to what’s at stake, North Carolina receives $16.29 billion annually in federal funding from census-guided programs, including school lunches, Medicaid and Section 8 housing.
“If individuals and communities are not counted, they’re essentially invisible to the government,” Carless said.
Chavi Koneru, co-founder of North Carolina Asian Americans Together , said that her organization is deeply concerned that the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 census would lead to an undercount of the state’s Asian American community – “an outcome that could prevent political boundaries from being accurately drawn and funding from being properly allocated.”
The state’s Asian American population is rapidly growing, 115 percent from 2010 to 2016, and it’s incredibly diverse, according to Koneru. It includes people from over 20 Asian ethnicities and nationalities who speak more than 40 languages, as well as a wide range of education and economic levels.
“An accurate census is crucial for the NC AAPI [Asian American and Pacific islander] community, not only because it allows different needs in the community to be represented and prioritized, but also because it is the most comprehensive set of socioeconomic data points on specific ethnicities in the Asian American community, otherwise often viewed as a homogeneous group,” she said.
Koneru added that the citizenship question has been particularly concerning for Asian Americans because there is a precedent of using census data to track and target that community. The 1940 census was used by the U.S. government to identify and forcibly relocate Japanese Americans into internment camps.
“In the current political climate, where immigrants are being targeted by policies, this question heightens feelings of fear and mistrust,” she said.
Similarly, Mary Jose Espinosa, a civic engagement organizer at El Pueblo  in Raleigh, said the citizenship question perpetuates anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx rhetoric, making it more likely undocumented individuals won’t participate in the count.
“Everyone has to be counted regardless of citizenship in the U.S.,” she said. “Latinos and other immigrant populations are already really undercounted.”
She, like Koneru and Carless, noted that those undercounted populations will suffer tangible consequences.
El Pueblo is involved in another lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund  challenging the citizenship question. It’s expected to go to trial next week.
Espinosa said she thinks Furman’s ruling earlier this week is a good sign of things to come.
“I think it’s really important to see that there are other folks agreeing,” she said. “We are hopeful that it means we will be looking at a better outcome.”
Ultimately, she’d like the issue to get to the U.S. Supreme Court and in the meantime, she and other advocates across the state are working to create community awareness about what’s going on.
Carless said she hopes Congress will act before it gets to the point of getting the high court involved.
“It was really truly a great legal victory, and looking at the judge’s opinion, he also saw the questioning of the integrity of the system,” she said of this week’s ruling. “I just hope the momentum continues.”