Other Opinions

Why the census debate, and an accurate count, matters to Fresno. It should be obvious

Following the news about the 2020 Census may give one whiplash, but the effects of these decisions upon our Central Valley are far too profound to ignore.

Last week, the Supreme Court in a partly unanimous opinion (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/18pdf/18-966_bq7c.pdf, though there were several 5-4 splits and different takes) penned by Chief Justice Roberts stated that the Department of Commerce could not add a citizenship question to the 2020 census based on the evidence provided. It ruled that Commerce Secretary and Trump appointee Wilbur Ross’ reasoning to add the question to enforce the Voting Rights Act was “contrived” and “pretext’”— essentially a lie to mask the real reason for the question’s inclusion.

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Fresno Bee file

While the court’s ruling believed the real justification is a “mystery,” many who have been following the twists and turns of the case believe the reasoning is quite obvious and the smoking gun has been discovered (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/new-census-evidence-smoking-gun-latino-legislators-activists-n1012171). A citizenship question is already asked on the American Community Survey, giving further evidence that the motive is disingenuous. So at this point, neither did the Supreme Court uphold the citizenship question, nor did it bar the question from being added, either. It merely ruled on narrow procedural grounds that the justification provided was fake.

The Supreme Court’s ruling had been expedited due to the Census Bureau stating it had a June 30th deadline to finalize and would begin printing the census questionnaire forms on July 1st. With the ruling on June 27th, most everyone assumed that the clock had run out on the Trump administration to add the question. Most celebrated; some denounced. It seems even the officials in the eye of the storm breathed a sigh of relief that the decision was over and that the 1.5 billion pieces of census related paper could be printed.

On Tuesday, July 2nd, Commerce Secretary Ross stated, “I respect the Supreme Court but strongly disagree with its ruling regarding my decision to reinstate a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau has started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question. My focus, and that of the Bureau and the entire Department is to conduct a complete and accurate Census.” (https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1TX2SE).

Then, the tweet (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1146435093491277824). Following Ross’ comment, the next day President Trump tweeted: “The News Reports about the Department of Commerce dropping its quest to put the Citizenship Question on the Census is incorrect or, to state it different, FAKE! We are absolutely moving forward, as we must, because of the importance of the answer to this question (sic).” Then on Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt said, “We at the Department of Justice have been instructed to examine whether there is a path forward, consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision, that would allow us to include the citizenship question on the census” (https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/451639-doj-ordered-to-find-ways-to-include-citizenship-question-on-2020).

With a federal judge in Maryland calling for a written agreement not to go forward with the question pending on Friday (July 5th), we may have an answer soon. Stakes are high, and I am not speaking about the political repercussions.

The U.S. census is mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, and since the 1930 count, federal law has set Census Day as April 1st. The Census Bureau is legally required to report each state’s new population numbers by the end of December. An accurate count has implications on all aspects of American life, from building new schools to apportioning Social Security. Not being counted has adverse effects and huge implications. I have previously written about how the Punjabi language was not reported by the Census Bureau until 2017 (https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article147247079.html), despite the language being the third-most spoken in the Central Valley and fourth most in Fresno County.

The implications of an undercount are especially dire in Fresno County as it is home to some of the largest hard-to-count (HTC) populations as a percentage in the state. The community is coming together to make sure that all residents are counted. The California Census Office is leading the nation in terms of state initiatives to ensure an accurate count and has many Valley residents in leadership positions. Local efforts in the region, including Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Inyo, and Kern counties, are being organized by the San Joaquin Valley Health Fund (https://www.shfcenter.org/sjvhealthfund) of the The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, along with county offices with community organizations taking the lead in drawing maps and making sure that all residents are included.

While the citizenship question is taking center stage, there are real questions to be asked around timeline, adequate funding, cybersecurity (as this is the first census that will be available online) hiring enough census workers, and undercounting communities of color and other HTC groups (http://www.wkfamilyfund.org/docs/California%20Census%20White%20Paper%20-%20August%201.pdf). An accurate count will take a Herculean effort and one that will require all neighbors of Fresno County to commit and assist.

Naindeep Singh of Fresno is the executive director of the Jakara Movement, a youth development nonprofit and the largest Sikh volunteer organization in the United States.