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September 25, 2018

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New question on 2020 Census stoking immigration fears

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Associated Press

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stands with members of District Council 37 after a news conference April 3 in New York. A lawsuit by 17 states, the District of Columbia and six cities against the U.S. government says a plan to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire is unconstitutional.

Immigration advocates are worried a new citizenship question on the upcoming Census will hurt population data in certain states, affecting representation for voters and federal funding.

“Between 1820 and 1950, almost every decennial census asked a question on citizenship in some form,” a March 2018 news release from the U.S. Department of Commerce read. “Having citizenship data at the census block level will permit more effective enforcement of the [Voting Rights Act].”

Census data helps states in legislative and congressional redistricting, and is used in distributing billions in federal funds to states for programs such as Pell Grants and Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers. The federal government says the citizenship question will lead to more accurate Census data.

States with large immigrant populations may see these funding sources decrease with the addition of a citizenship question, said Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic.

“This is going on in an atmosphere where immigrant families feel very much threatened and under siege,” Kagan said. “They don’t know if they can trust the government.”

Even with assurances that Census data won’t be used for deportation purposes, people living in the country illegally might not even open the door to Census takers for fear they’ll be targeted, Kagan said.

This reluctance could also lead to an undercount of the citizen population. Entire families might forgo participating in the Census if they have one or more relatives who live in the country illegally.

“It will probably be extremely hurtful to Nevada, which has one of the largest immigrant populations per capita in the country,” Kagan said. “Nevada could stand to lose a good deal of federal money and possibly representation if we have an undercount of how many people are living here.”

The Census helps states draw boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, a process Democrats say Republicans have taken advantage of to gerrymander safe, red districts. The National Democratic Redistricting Committee is working to elect Democrats in battleground states such as Nevada so they have a seat at the table when states start redistricting.

A recent Brennan Center for Justice report says partisan gerrymandering has given Republicans an advantage of about 17 seats in the House, largely accounted for by seven states where Republicans alone drew the maps, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in October during the Democratic National Committee’s fall meeting.

“The National Democratic Redistricting Committee that I head and in which President [Barack] Obama has been very involved has been created to ensure that after the next census in 2020, lines are drawn in a fair way, not a partisan way, to ensure that the people’s wishes are reflected in candidates who are elected,” Holder said.

The NDRC says this is a critical election year. The state chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and will have an open seat for governor as Brian Sandoval terms out. The group also lists the seat of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and the Assembly as targets.

In Nevada, the Legislature draws the lines, but the governor has veto power. Sandoval exercised that power twice in 2011, leaving a court to break the gridlock.

An AP analysis found that while districts that favor Republicans are far more common, the Nevada Assembly favors Democrats more than any other state legislature’s lower chamber.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., said in a statement that the citizenship question politicizes the Census. She is sponsoring the Every Person Counts Act in the Senate to ban the question from the questionnaire.

Nevada is not among the 17 states suing over the question.

“This is a direct attack on immigrant populations that could lead to undercounted and underfunded minority districts across the country,” Cortez Masto said. “It is an assault on our representative democracy and our Constitution, which requires a complete and accurate count of everyone living in the country, no matter their citizenship status.”

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.