The census is coming.
Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau takes a head count of the country. The results from that count help inform the government when it comes to things including how many legislative and congressional representatives there should be for any given area as well as how much federal funding a community can receive for anything from seniors to transportation.
So, in short, it’s kind of a big deal.
And because it’s a big deal, the King County Regional Census Committee (KCRCC) was formed to focus on ensuring the most accurate count in the 2020 census. The committee kicked off its efforts on June 24 at the Tukwila Community Center.
Committee members included King County Executive Dow Constantine and former Gov. Gary Locke as well as representatives from various agencies, nonprofit organizations and local city governments from throughout the county, including the Eastside Refugee and Immigrant Coalition, the King County Library System, the cities of Seattle, Kenmore and Tukwila and the Washington Census Alliance.
During his welcoming remarks at the KCRCC kickoff, Locke said so much is at stake and told his fellow committee members that community leaders are key to getting the word out to the greater population.
Constantine said the 2020 census is of deep civic importance and they need to work to make sure no one is pushed into the shadows.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan added that the current presidential administration is working to drive refugees and immigrants into those shadows Constantine mentioned.
The citizenship question
One way people may be driven into the shadows is the citizenship question. This was a topic of discussion and concern at the kickoff as the committee was still waiting on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on whether asking if people were citizens or not on the census is illegal. The decision came down later in the week with the high court blocking the question.
In response to this decision, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson released a statement saying the ruling is “yet another affirmation of the core values of our country.”
“The administration’s supposed justification for adding a citizenship question to the census was a lie — a lie to the courts and to the American people. Their true goal: To create gerrymandered voting districts that ‘would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.’ The court found that ‘altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation [Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross] gave for his decision.’ …Agencies [must] offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case,” the statement reads.
King County Assessor John Wilson, who is a member of KCRCC, also released a statement following the SCOTUS decision. He wrote that SCOTUS rejected the inclusion of raw politics into the census and that we already get citizenship data from the annual community survey.
And while administration officials initially promised to abide by the SCOTUS decision, it was reported on July 5 by the New York Times that U.S. Justice Department lawyers are working to get the question on the census.
With a current political climate in which immigrants of all statuses may already feel targeted, it’s not too hard to infer that non-citizens may hesitate to go on record with that information.
And really, can you blame them?
Locke said even without the citizenship question, there has long been a fear among immigrants of giving out information and exposing themselves to government action.
“It has existed for quite some time,” he said.
As Wilson put it in his statement, “the purpose of the census is to count everyone residing within our borders, and adding the citizenship question would cause many people to not participate.”
He continues, stating that the addition of such a question would make the census data inaccurate, which would “dramatically affect congressional and legislative redistricting, and divert hundreds of millions of dollars away from vital programs that support public education, nutrition, and health care, victims of crime, community development, rehabilitation centers and unemployment insurance, among so many others.”
Like I said, a big deal.
Gina Topp, who serves as chief legal counsel and policy advisor for the county, said the state of Alabama is currently in the middle of a lawsuit regarding whether undocumented immigrants should be counted. She said the state’s argument is that it could lose federal dollars as well as a congressional seat to states that have larger immigrant populations.
“This does not align with our goals,” Topp said of the county’s efforts to be a welcoming community. “This is new. We’ve always counted undocumented immigrants.”
After Topp informed the KCRCC of the lawsuit, the question was raised whether it could open the door on whether to count other immigrants who are living within our borders on visas, with green cards or who have permanent residency.
In the Constitution
Constantine pointed out that the census count is part of the U.S. Constitution and it is stated in plain language that everyone should be counted.
For those who are wondering what our Constitution actually says, Article I, Section 2 states that “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States…according to their respective Numbers.” And in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State…excluding Indians not taxed.”
It doesn’t say anything about counting only citizens or only people who own land or only people eligible to vote. If the latter were the case, that would also mean children wouldn’t be counted and remember for a long time, women and people of color were not allowed to vote.
That would be a double strike against me, so I guess I wouldn’t be counted twice?
Acknowledging people’s humanity
So that’s some of the political importance of the census.
Now let’s think about it on just a human level.
As Durkan put it, “in order for people to count, they need to be counted.”
When you break it down to its most basic, the census is about counting who’s here. It’s like a roll call for attendance in school. And if you’re in class, participating, doing your homework and taking those tests but at the end of the day, your presence — and hard work — is not even being acknowledged, let’s face it, that would suck.
There was once a period in our country’s history when black people only counted as three-fifths of a person — which is bad enough. But now, people are trying to put measures in place to make it so certain populations are not counted at all — not even as a fraction.
What kind of country would we be if we failed to acknowledge the humanity of all of those who reside within our borders? If we failed to acknowledge that it takes people of all types to make our country work?
Remember, the Statue of Liberty welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” There’s nothing written on her plaque about expecting people to become citizens.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@sound