The 2020 Census citizenship question is spelling trouble in Texas

For the Lone Star State, the Census is set to be a nightmare.

The addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census could pose a dire threat to Texas' immigrant population.
(CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)
The addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census could pose a dire threat to Texas' immigrant population. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

Last week, the Commerce Department announced that a citizenship question would be added to the upcoming decennial Census for the first time in 70 years. The implications are stark for the entire country, but results could be dire for one state in particular: Texas.

The Census is a constitutionally mandated project, one that meets a number of crucial national needs. But years of funding shortages, stalled efforts to upgrade its technology, and general leadership issues within the Census Bureau have thrown the 2020 project for a loop. Now, with a citizenship question on the line, it could burden the program — and individual states — even further.

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Texas was already facing an undercount in the 2020 Census, but experts and advocates say the citizenship question will likely exacerbate the problem. That means the second-largest state in the country could soon find itself facing a major dilemma with ramifications for millions of people.

According to Election Data Services, Texas stands to gain as many as three new congressional seats following the 2020 Census. The state also relies on billions of dollars to fund programs like Medicare, to say nothing of infrastructure upgrades and other necessities. An accurate Census count will ensure that funding continues — but at the moment, experts say, that assurance is far from certain.

Texas has at least three challenges facing it as it seeks a fair and accurate count for the 2020 Census,” Phil Sparks, who heads the non-partisan Census Project, told ThinkProgress. “And it’s a matter of money and politics.”

A sweeping look at the Census in Texas by the Texas Tribune last week indicated that Texans are already hard to count: low-income residents, college students, and inhabitants in remote areas are only a few of the populations that pose a logistical challenge to enumerators. Sparks also pointed to the state’s rural population, saying that internet is essential for the Census to be fully effective, something that residents in the countryside don’t always have.

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Another issue plaguing the count is internal displacement. Hurricane Harvey destroyed a large part of the Texas coast last fall, leaving the sprawling, densely populated city of Houston struggling to recover. Sparks noted that, much like New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina in the last Census, counting Houston and the wider Gulf Coast region will be much more difficult this time around.

But these problems pale in comparison to the citizenship question, an addition that could be a nightmare for Texas.

Texas stands to gain new congressional districts in the upcoming Census, but if we fail to account for every person in the state, it’ll be difficult to get true representation in Congress we deserve,” Mario Carillo, director of America’s Voice Texas, an organization working on immigration reform, told ThinkProgress.

Central American immigrant families walk through the countryside after crossing from Mexico into the United States to seek asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
Central American immigrant families walk through the countryside after crossing from Mexico into the United States to seek asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

Carillo noted, “Latinos and immigrants in Texas have been historically difficult to count, and to include a question on citizenship, during a time when immigrants are living under one of the most anti-immigrant policies in the country, will scare people from wanting to be counted. If an immigrant is fearful of being deported for answering a question on their legal status, we will again find that Texas will be undercounted, and underrepresented.”

Texas is a “majority minority” state where people of color outnumber white residents, something that correlates directly with its large immigrant population. Eleven percent of all U.S. immigrants live in Texas. They account for approximately 17 percent of the state, according to the American Immigration Council, and one in six Texas residents is an immigrant.

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The state also has the second-highest population of undocumented immigrants in the country after California — around 1.7 million — and more than 1 million Texans have a family member who is undocumented. Latinx Texans, meanwhile, make up nearly 40 percent of the population.

Under President Trump, hardline anti-immigration rhetoric has sparked fears across the country, but for Texas residents, those concerns are nothing new. Deportations during the Obama administration still haunt immigrant communities there. Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) also introduced SB4, a law targeting so-called sanctuary cities; under that law, officials who fail to comply with federal immigration policies are subject to staggering fines, time in prison, or even removal from public office.

A number of Latinx organizers told ThinkProgress that the mistreatment of those communities is intentional, with many pointing to the recent Census question as a prime example.

“This administration wants communities of color and immigrants under-counted, under-represented and and under-resourced,” Cristina Tzintzun, founder and executive director of Jolt, a Texas organization working to make the state’s Latinx community a political force, told ThinkProgress. “They know that immigrant communities distrust and fear the federal government, and that because of this fear and mistrust millions of people would likely not participate in the Census and not be counted.”

The Census is meant to be non-partisan, but controversy over the citizenship question is rapidly making the endeavor a political fault line. A number of conservative figures, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, requested the question prior to its implementation. Following confirmation that the question would be added, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) lauded the move, calling it a “commonsense addition.”

El Paso, Texas. CREDIT: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Washington Post via Getty Images
El Paso, Texas. CREDIT: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Washington Post via Getty Images

By contrast, Cruz’s 2018 midterm challenger, Democrat Beto O’Rourke — who is from the border city of El Paso — has taken a stark opposition stance.

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Adding a Census question on citizenship is specifically intended to undercount communities with large immigrant populations,” O’Rourke said through a spokesperson, in a statement to ThinkProgress and other outlets. “For El Paso, for Houston, for every community across our defining border state, that means a loss of millions in resources for health care, public education, infrastructure and transportation, disaster relief and preparedness, and the distribution of billions in federal funds critical to projects in Texas.”

Vincent Harding, the party chair for the Democratic party in Travis County, home to Austin, was more blunt in his response, telling ThinkProgress that adding the citizenship question was an “un-American” move designed to hurt immigrants that “contribute to our workforce, buy goods in our neighborhoods, and pay taxes.”

An inaccurate Census count could hurt Republicans as well as Democrats, costing either party expanded representation in Washington. The Census Bureau’s own panel of experts has notably rebuked the decision to add a question about citizenship, but the Trump administration is standing by its decision. A Commerce Department spokesperson told ThinkProgress the move gave all U.S. residents the opportunity to provide an answer, allowing for a more complete picture of the country. 

Many advocates rallying against the question say supporters should consider the financial cost to all Texans. The state currently receives $43 billion based on Census counts. According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, for every 1 percent of the Texas population undercounted, the state could lose $291 million in federal funding. Texas already has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country, in addition to a staggeringly high maternal mortality rate. Opponents of the citizenship question say a reduction in federal funding won’t help fix those problems — instead, it could create more issues in a state where high quality of life is far from a guarantee.

In the Rio Grande Valley, home to some of the most vulnerable communities in the state, officials are considering drastic measures to counter the administration’s decision. In a Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council meeting last week, Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez seemed to weigh filing suit against the Trump administration to prevent the question from being included in the Census, part of an effort to protect border residents from being undercounted.

Other regions of the country have also begun fighting back: In March, shortly after the citizenship question was officially announced, California filed its own lawsuit, arguing that its inclusion in the 2020 Census was “illegal.” New York also announced on March 27 that it would lead its own multi-state suit.

Progressive Texans aren’t counting on such actions from their conservative state government. Facing a stark choice, some advocates say they will push their communities to strike a balance.

“[I]t’s more important than ever that every person in Texas, regardless of their immigration status, be counted in the upcoming Census,” Carillo said. If the question is added, those of us who work in the community will have to work harder to ensure immigrants that filling out the Census will be beneficial to them, and potentially encourage them to leave the question on citizenship blank.”