Attorney says: if your Census includes the citizenship question, don’t skip it

Albert Einstein purportedly devised the Theory of Relativity on a tram ride to work. Imagine what he could have come up with while stuck on a Muni vehicle.

These days, relativity feels relevant. Time, per Einstein’s theory, slows down as we speed up. Asymptotically.

Of late, it sure seems as if life has sped up. There is simply more going on than the human brain can process. And, as such, time feels like it has coagulated. Asymptotically.

To wit: It was only in mid-January that San Francisco and a consortium of other municipalities and states won a resounding judgment against the Trump Administration regarding its attempts to shoehorn questions about residents’ citizenship status onto the 2020 Census, 70 years after any such question was last included.

This development has been buried beneath a cavalcade of misfires and scandals and embarrassments and horrors emanating, largely, from the nation’s capital (“So much winning.”). Mid-January feels like it was months ago. Quite the opposite of Billy Pilgrim, we have all become stuck in time.

As such, you’ve probably forgotten all about this ruling. Maybe you never even knew about it in the first place; the local papers only ran wire copy, innocuously, and it was gone on Day 2.  

But this is a big deal. Especially in San Francisco, where an estimated 35 percent of us were born in another country and 13 percent of us are not citizens of this country.

If you don’t think the Census can be weaponized — talk to a Japanese American about that.

If you don’t think this administration breaking 70 years of precedent and giving no sound reason to suddenly ask people about their citizenship will significantly depress the count — painting a fundamentally inaccurate portrait of who we are as a nation and costing immigrant-heavy (read: Democratic) cities and states billions of dollars — talk to the Census bureau itself about that.   

And if you don’t think that an attempt by well-meaning American citizens to skip or incorrectly answer a citizenship question on the Census — an “I’m Spartacus!” solidarity move — might not backfire disastrously — talk to Jonathan Stein about that.

Stein, an attorney, heads up the voting rights and census programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus. If you wanted to ask someone whether it’s wise to skip or incorrectly answer a potential citizenship question on the 2020 Census as an FU to the obviously malign motives of the Trump administration and in support of immigrants, you couldn’t find a better person.

And he couldn’t be more unambiguous: Don’t do this.

“You should answer it. You should answer the citizenship question,” he says. “I know there are some parties out there who think this is organized civil disobedience. The downside is: There may be some really serious negative repercussions for voting rights enforcement.”

The Census Bureau, Stein explains, is used to determine when redistricting is necessary for a city, county, or school board, and what the citizen voting-age population of a community is. No matter how well-meaning, a move to skip or incorrectly answer a citizenship question will have consequences here.

“If you can draw a majority-minority district, the requirements are that this district must be drawn,” Stein says. “This is critical for diversification. But if people who are citizens decide as a matter of principle not to answer that, it may make the voting population look smaller — and make it harder to fight for majority-minority districts.”

So this would be suboptimal. As would diluting language access for voters.

“The Federal Voting Rights Act uses Census data to determine which counties have to offer translated materials” and bilingual poll workers, Stein notes. “The data used is the citizen population.” An undercount here could actually render it harder for vulnerable voters to cast a ballot.

A side note: The less completely you fill out your Census form (or if you skip it altogether), the more likely a Census worker will be sent to knock on your door. In 2010, an estimated 22.6 percent of San Francisco households did not return their Census — a huge undercount that led to many census workers rapping on many doors (we will explore the massive fiscal consequences of an undercount momentarily).

So, San Franciscans already weren’t the greatest at filling out the Census, even in the happy-go-lucky Hope and Change era — and, in the ensuing decade, the scenario of someone from the federal government coming to your home and asking sensitive questions about residency status has, to put it mildly, darkened. The people who most wish to avoid this situation are the ones most likely to experience it, especially if they fail to answer the questions or skip the Census altogether.

Stein and others have always hammered home the message to sensitive communities to not open the door to anyone asking immigration questions who isn’t in possession of a warrant. A Census worker falls into that category, and Stein is loath to start muddying his simple and ironclad advice about not opening the door.

It would be a stretch to say that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wanted all of the above to occur when he countered the will of the Census Bureau and overruled its scientific findings about suppression to push the citizenship question.

These are Lilliputian devils in the details. The overarching and unsubtle goal seems to be inducing a predictable undercount. This would reduce electoral representation in immigrant-heavy (read: Democratic) areas. This would reduce funding to these areas as well.

How much? To quote Brian of Nazareth: A lot. San Francisco’s budget includes some $1.6 billion from federal, state, or other governments. Figuring out exactly how much of that is population-dependent is on the city’s to-do list, but “a significant amount” is the current estimation.

Among Census professionals, the rule of thumb is that every uncounted person costs his or her municipality $2,000 a year in federal resources. The Census Bureau itself has determined that citizenship questions will dampen its count by 5 to 12 percent among households with non-citizens residing within — and this is pegged as a “conservative” estimate.

This adds up quickly. If California’s count is decreased by even 2 million, Stein notes, that’s a loss of some $40 billion in federal money.

“Papers, please.”

Of course, San Franciscans and others may not be faced with this contrived outrage, thanks to that January ruling from Judge Jesse Furman of New York’s Southern District court. Among other mouth-watering passages, Furman found the decision to push the citizenship question onto the Census demonstrated “a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut” violations.

More substantively, in his 277-page spanking of the feds, keen legal observers noted Furman cited Justices Roberts, Gorsuch, Alito, Scalia, and even Kavanaugh in making his points. In order to undo the legal knot Furman has neatly tied, the Supreme Court’s conservative wing would have to contradict itself. Repeatedly.

That is, clearly, no problem for Kavanaugh (cue the legion of “hold my beer” jokes), but Chief Justice Roberts seems to actually respect the notion of stare decisis, and desire his court be seen as a legitimate entity. Oh what a world: to be relying on country club Republicans to save us from something more toxic. But that’s the world we live in.

And, though we have indeed become stuck in time, time is of the essence here. Following Furman’s ruling, the Feds have made the unusual move of appealing this case directly to the Supreme Court for expediency’s sake. The Census forms must be finalized by mid-year.

By then, who knows how many additional misfires and scandals and embarrassments and horrors will be heaped atop those already obscuring the Census matter. Our lack of attention to this issue may yet be warranted.

Everything, after all, is relative.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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