New York City Could Lose Money and Power With Trump’s Citizenship Question

(Bloomberg) -- New York City, home to more than 8 million people, is bracing for a census undercount expected if the Trump administration is allowed to keep a citizenship question it has added to the 2020 census, a city official testified.

“It’s very concerning,” Dr. Joseph Salvo, head of the New York City Department of Planning’s population division, told a federal judge in Manhattan. Salvo said he works with census officials to compile and analyze population data for the nation’s biggest city

“Actually,” he said, “it’s frightening.”

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, presiding without a jury, is hearing the first case in a raft of lawsuits filed by dozens of states and cities to remove the question -- “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” -- from the once-a-decade census, where it hasn’t appeared since 1950.

The plaintiffs claim the addition of the question is a cynical attempt to scare immigrants and noncitizens away from the comprehensive, constitutionally mandated count in order to weaken their political influence. The U.S. says that claim is built on “unrelated innuendos” and that the question will improve the accuracy of the census, allowing the government to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The trial, which comes as New Yorkers join citizens across the country in a momentous midterm election, could help rewrite the nation’s political map for a decade or more. Census results are used to apportion U.S. congressional seats and divvy up the Electoral College votes that determine the winners of presidential elections. The data are also used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars a year in federal aid to states and localities.

Testifying on the second day of the trial, Salvo said the most reliable population data come from direct responses to census questionnaires. When people fail to respond to mailings and in-person canvassers, he said, the Census Bureau must resort to government and commercial records, filling in holes with estimates -- and reducing the reliability of the data, which New York uses for everything from building new schools to targeting health-care efforts.

“The best way to get this data is right out of the gate, from the people themselves,” Salvo said.

Underlying the plaintiffs’ case is the concern that, with President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants in the air, people approached by census takers may worry that the data could be used by federal immigration agents to target them or someone in their household, even if they are in the U.S. legally. Salvo testified that he has spoken with Hispanic community leaders who voice this fear.

About 14 percent of the U.S. population lives in households with one or more noncitizens, according to William Frey, a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and an expert on the census who isn’t involved in the case.

The case is likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, the court ordered an expedited briefing on the government’s bid to narrow the scope of the plaintiffs’ case. The U.S. wants to limit it to the materials the Commerce Department says were used in deciding to add the question, and to exclude other evidence. The high court required all briefs be filed by Nov. 15 -- near the trial’s conclusion.

The order comes just four days after the high court cleared the way for the two-week trial to start Monday, declining to expand an earlier order that shielded Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from being questioned under oath ahead of the trial. Ross’s department houses the Census Bureau.

As an example of population counts gone awry, Salvo told Furman about a mysterious glitch in local census data that showed a 46 percent increase in vacant housing units in the city from 2000 to 2010, including suspiciously large vacancy rates in popular southern Brooklyn and northwestern Queens neighborhoods.

“This is like the South Bronx in the 1970s,” he said. “It’s clear that something went really wrong here.”

The case is State of New York v. U.S. Department of Commerce, 18-cv-2921, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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