Castillo: Why you should care about the census citizenship question

A pro golfer famously known for being uneasy in the spotlight once said he didn’t like answering the telephone because, “there might be someone on the other end.”

Not answering the phone might be eccentric, but not answering the door is another thing altogether. Many of us don’t like a knock at the door when we’re not expecting anyone. And that can be a problem for the every-10-years exercise mandated by the Constitution to count every person living in the United States: the census. In 2010 about 1 in 4 census forms were collected by census workers walking neighborhoods. Their success depended on people answering their door and answering a few questions. Sounds innocuous enough.

But while most Americans might consider the census a nuisance at worst, for immigrants, a representative of the federal government knocking at the door can send fear throughout the household.

RELATED: What you need to know about the census’ citizenship question

“It goes to this notion of fear, trust and cultural differences,” Ryan Robinson, the city of Austin’s demographer, told me.

And there lies the root of the outrage that followed the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. This week the blowback grew to include a legal challenge by 17 states, seven cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors suing the federal government to block the question. (Texas and Austin are not among them.)

Why all the fuss over a simple question? And if you’re a citizen, why should you care? Simply put, because the census is a big deal and the results affect us all — whether or not we’re citizens.

You see, billions of federal dollars to cities and states ride on the census. The federal government uses the results to decide how to distribute $675 billion in all, Robinson said. That’s money for everything from highways to Head Start to mental health support services to programs for the elderly, to name just a few.

“This affects the size of your child’s classroom, Pell grants, food stamps, the level of services a community gets,” said City Council Member Greg Casar.

RELATED: Citizenship question will hurt Texas, Democrats say

Understandably, Austin and cities across the country want to get their fair slice of that generous federal pie. But the states and cities suing the federal government contend the citizenship question will stir fear among immigrants and that they risk losing billions if immigrants are undercounted. They also allege that adding the question is unconstitutional because it undercuts the government’s mandate to count every U.S. resident.

There’s more than money at stake. The government uses the census for redrawing political boundaries, such as for deciding the number of representatives each state gets in Congress. Texas has 36 congressional seats — and it’s likely the state’s population growth will lead to more seats after the 2020 census. More seats means more political representation. The number of new House seats can tilt on the accuracy of the count.

The census hasn’t asked about citizenship since 1950. The Justice Department said it asked for the question to be added back, so that it can enforce the Voting Rights Act. But some critics see malevolent motives, accusing the administration of trying to hurt immigrants and Latinos.

“I can guarantee you this will have a chilling effect (on census response) and that’s what the administration wants,” said Casar. He represents District 4, which has one of the city’s highest immigrant populations. One in three residents there are immigrants — and the district is already undercounted by the census, Casar said.

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The citizenship question is “is an ill-conceived scare tactic” designed to drive down Latino participation in the census, Ann Beeson with the Center for Public Policy Priorities said in a statement.

Immigrant advocates like the group America’s Voice likened adding the question to the second blow of a one-two punch, the first being the implementation of SB 4 in Texas. Asking about citizenship, the group said, will further drive immigrant families into the shadows.

Robinson, the city demographer who is the city’s liaison with the national census, agrees the citizenship question will make it harder to get a good count of immigrants. “It was already difficult before,” he said.

The federal government emphasizes it doesn’t share census records, including with law enforcement. But try telling that to an immigrant in this age of Senate Bill 4, federal raids and crackdowns, and President Trump’s demonization of immigrants as criminals and rapists.

Even immigrants who are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally can be fearful, Robinson said. Some members of their family might not have legal status, and they fear that the information they volunteer will be used against them, he said.

About 18 percent of the city of Austin’s population is foreign-born, a number that includes citizens and immigrants here legally, Robinson said. That translates to about 180,000 people. About 320,000 people living in the wider Austin metro area are foreign-born.

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About one out of six Texas residents was born in a foreign country, according to the state demographer’s website. In 2014, Texas’ 4.5 million foreign-born population tied New York for the second-largest state immigrant population by size, according to the Pew Research Center.

About half of the nearly 44 million immigrants living in the U.S. in 2016 were naturalized citizens, according to census data.

With their heavy presence, immigrants are woven into the fabric of our society. If a considerable number of those immigrants are fearful of the citizenship question and don’t answer the census, the consequences could harm Austin and Texas, answering an altogether different question, “Why should I care?”

Castillo is the editorial page editor. Contact him at

Castillo is the editorial page editor. Contact him at

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