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A new census question on citizenship could be bad for Pennsylvania and NJ

The danger looms in the possibility of huge undercounts, as immigrants, documented and not, avoid participating in a 2020 Census that they fear could become a tool of law enforcement. Huge amounts of federal money are at stake.

The Trump administration wants a question on citizenship included in the 2020 Census, the first time that issue has been raised since 1950.
The Trump administration wants a question on citizenship included in the 2020 Census, the first time that issue has been raised since 1950.Read moreiStock

Critics say a new census question on citizenship status could hurt immigrants, their families, and their communities.

But it might be bad for other people, too.

For instance, everyone who lives in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"This could impact all of us," said Erin Casey, executive director of Pennsylvania Voice, a good-governance advocacy group that's pushing for a fair and accurate 2020 census. "Pennsylvania communities could lose out on billions in federal aid."

Danger looms in the possibility of huge undercounts, as immigrants — documented or not — avoid participating in a census they fear could become a tool of federal law enforcement. Many fled lands where government intrusion and monitoring were both constant and threatening. Advocates fear this new question could generate unsettling echoes.

In the Garden State, with the third-highest percentage of immigrants behind California and New York, "such a question would only do harm," said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. "A citizenship question will obviously cause great consternation and discourage participation in the census. That lack of participation will inevitably have far-reaching, negative effects."

The furor erupted late Monday when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he would comply with a Justice Department request to include a citizenship question as a means to identify violations of the Voting Rights Act.

A national battle looms. Officials in California already have filed suit against the Trump administration to block the question, and leaders in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts say they will do the same.

Census figures are key to determining how the federal government spends tax money on everything from highways to hospitals. The data constitute the basis for apportioning congressional seats — crucial in Pennsylvania, which is predicted to fall from 18 to 17 seats after the next count, according to Election Data Services, a political consulting firm. That would continue a trend in which the state has lost at least one seat every 10 years.

Texas, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado are predicted to gain seats, according to Election Data Services.

State and local governments also depend on accurate census data to make decisions on spending and taxes, and businesses use the information to help decide whether to expand and where to build.

"For the approximately 90 percent of the population who are citizens, this question is no additional imposition," Ross wrote in a memo posted online.

During a review process, he wrote, no one could prove that merely asking the question would cause people to avoid the census.

Not since 1950 has the census questionnaire asked people whether they were U.S. citizens. The question has been included on the annual American Community Survey, a census update that reaches a small percentage of people.

"It's clear their goal is to intimidate and scare people from participating in the census," said Adanjesus Marin, state director of Make the Road Pennsylvania, a Latino-rights organization. "It's an attempt to affect who is in Congress, and try to suppress the amount of representation from states that are more progressive and have larger immigrant communities."

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. Many will not want to share that information with the government, fearing it could lead to detention and deportation.

At the same time, lack of citizenship does not necessarily mean someone is here illegally. The nation is home to about 13 million legal permanent residents, or green-card holders, immigrants who have been granted the right to live and work in the U.S.

"This is going to affect all immigrant communities, of all citizenships, and their families," said Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an immigrant-advocacy group. "There's always been questions about who came and when they came. This question is much more politically motivated."

In Philadelphia, recent census estimates show about 103,000 residents are noncitizens, roughly 7 percent of the city population. Among them, 39 percent come from Latin America, 37 percent from Asia.

Avondale and Kennett Square, both in Chester County mushroom country, are the municipalities with the highest percentages of noncitizens.

Avondale is estimated to have 522 noncitizens, about 36.5 percent of its population, and Kennett Square 1,991 noncitizens, about 32.4 percent of all residents.

Submission of the final questions is due to Congress on March 31.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.