Immigration and Citizenship

House Dems put spotlight on Census prep

After a federal court invalidated the Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, House Democrats are turning their attention toward making sure the Census Bureau can handle the myriad other preparations required in advance of the national count.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), José Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Jesús García (D-Ill.) held a closed-door briefing with representatives from the New York State Attorney General’s Office, congressional staffers and civil rights and constitutional groups to discuss both the ruling and Congress’ next steps regarding the census.

After the briefing, Maloney said she would be reintroducing the Census IDEA Act either this week or next. The bill would outlaw changes to the decennial count that have not been “researched, studied, and tested for at least three years before the date on which the applicable census,” and that have not been submitted to Congress.

Maloney introduced the bill in the last Congress, where it had 52 Democratic co-sponsors, but never received a vote. This time around, Maloney said she has spoken with leadership and hopes the House will “be able to pass it early.”

One year out, the Census Bureau still has critical IT systems to deploy, a number of cybersecurity tests to conduct, staff to hire and a nationwide partnership and communications program to expand. Further, the printing of forms for the 2020 count is slated to begin around June. Maloney noted that with all of these tasks to complete — in addition to the remaining uncertainty surrounding the citizenship question — “that’s not a lot of time.”

It also appears Congress will take a greater oversight role in the final year of preparation for the census than it did in the previous session. Maloney said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, “promised” her a hearing on the census “at the earliest practical time.” In the last Congress, Cummings and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) sought to subpoena Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over the citizenship question, and Maloney said Cummings wants to follow through on that effort once the new committee rosters are finalized.

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that even without the issue of the citizenship question looming, the weight of the remaining preparations is “already concerning.”

“The courts will have to move quickly” to give Census enough heads-up and clear the citizenship issue, she said.

There’s also the issue of funding. Census received about $1 billion in forward funding in the fiscal year 2018 appropriation for the first quarter of fiscal year 2019.

“Every day that passes without the certainty of a full-year appropriation and direction from Congress about priorities for spending those funds puts the success of the 2020 census at greater risk,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has provided census oversight as a congressional aide, presidential transition team member and private consultant on four decennials.

“There is no question in my mind that this prolonged shutdown is putting the 2020 census in greater jeopardy than it already is,” she said.

On the funding front, Serrano, the expected chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Census Bureau, raised concerns about the shutdown’s effect on census prep, noting readiness “could suffer to a point detrimental to the count.”

“They have money, but how long until it becomes a problem?” he said. “We’re keeping an eye on the census so that they don’t come up with yet another excuse. It’s something that becomes a crisis if we don’t get it funded.”

Maloney also said she is circulating a letter to House members for signatories, asking Ross not to appeal the Jan. 15 decision.

Still, Praveen Fernandes and David Gans, attorneys with the Constitutional Accountability Center who worked on the citizenship question case in New York, said they fully anticipate the Trump administration to appeal the U.S. District Court ruling.

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