Why adding a citizenship question on the census should concern you

The news that the Trump administration plans to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census is triggering outrage and pushback from Washington to Austin, starting the clock on what surely will be drawn-out legal and political battles across the country. California has filed a legal challenge and other states – but not Texas – are threatening to sue.

RELATED: Citizenship question will hurt Texas, Democrats say

Some critics see malevolent motives in the change, accusing the administration of trying to hurt immigrants, Latinos and Democrats.

“I can guarantee you this will have a chilling effect (on census response) and that’s what the administration wants,” said City Council Member Greg Casar, who represents District 4 in North Austin, which he said has one of the city’s highest immigrant populations and is already undercounted by the census.

Ann Beeson, the CEO of the Center for Public Policy Priorities,  said the citizenship question is designed to drive down Latino participation in the census, which is mandated by the Constitution.

Asking about citizenship status “is an ill-conceived scare tactic,” she said in a statement.

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

Why all the fuss over a simple question, you might be asking? And if I’m a citizen, why should I care anyway? Simply put, the answer is because the census is a big deal and the results affect us all.

The federal government uses the decennial count for redrawing boundaries, such as for House seats and City Council districts, and for deciding the number of representatives each state gets in Congress, for example. Texas has 36 congressional seats and it’s speculated the state might gain seats after the new census count. How many will be determined by the count.

“If you don’t get counted, you are given less representation at the political level,” Casar told me. About 1 in 3 residents in District 4 are immigrants and over 2 in 3 are renters, he said.

“Census officials will tell you that if your first language is not English, if you have lower levels of education, if you’re a person of color and if you move frequently, those are all factors that lead to undercounting,” Casar said.

Moreover, the government uses census results to decide how to distribute $675 billion in federal monies to cities and states, city of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson told me. 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,” added Casar.

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

Like other big cities across the country, Austin wants to get its fair slice of that federal pot. Doing so requires getting a full and accurate census count. But Robinson, who is the city’s liaison for the national census, and others worry that the citizenship question will scare immigrants, including those who are here legally, from answering the census questionnaire, leading to an undercount and resulting in less money for Austin.

“It’s going to be harder to get a good count (of immigrants),” Robinson said. “Even before adding the citizenship question, it was already difficult … It goes back to this notion of fear, trust and cultural differences.”

While most Americans might consider the census a nuisance at worst, for immigrants and refugees, a representative of the federal government knocking at the door can send fear throughout the household, Robinson said.

Even immigrants who are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally might balk at answering the census because some members of their family might not have legal status, critics say.

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

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. Texas stands to gain in a big way if those millions are counted.

Do the math – immigrants are woven into the fabric of our lives and 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 the question, “Why should I care?”

 

Viewpoints: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

Five bombings in the past three weeks, with two dead, four injured and the culprit still at large, is plenty to put all of Austin on edge. But another incendiary layer to this saga is playing out on social media.

The hashtag #AustinBombings has been trending on Twitter in part because of all of the media coverage — and in part because of complaints about the perceived lack of media coverage, even as the bombings have dominated the Statesman’s online and print editions, not to mention all of the reporting from local and national TV and radio outlets.

Yes, there’s the obvious: Some people aren’t exactly keeping up with the news, especially in their self-contained social media bubbles.

But go deeper, and you’ll find real anxiety about race and distrust of the media.

Go deeper still, according to NPR, and you’ll find Russian bots amplifying the whole thing.

The first three bombs killed two African-American men and injured a Hispanic woman, raising the specter these might be hate crimes, particularly because the two slain men belonged to prominent East Austin families connected to Wesley United Methodist Church. The Statesman has provided extensive coverage of those bombings and the growing investigation, including the latest explosion that injured two white men in Southwest Austin and the early Tuesday explosion of an Austin-bound package at a FedEx facility in Schertz. But for some observers in other cities who, for whatever reason, initially heard little about these bombings, the storyline tapped into longstanding concerns that the media does not cover tragedies in communities of color with the same vigor as calamities affecting whites.

“In general, people don’t trust the media,” Mia Moody-Ramirez, a University of Texas journalism grad and Baylor University professor specializing in media and race issues, told me by phone this week. “They think some stories will be highlighted more than others.”

These reactions reminded me of the social media outrage in 2015, when some indignant posts asked why the terrorist attacks at a Paris concert hall and restaurant drew far more media coverage than did the  slaughter of 147 people in a Kenya school attack. Only the facts didn’t bear that out. Every major news outlet did cover the Kenyan terrorist attack and in great detail.  

Some critics don’t understand why the Austin bombings haven’t drawn the same kind of round-the-clock national TV coverage as other big stories, such as Hurricane Harvey or the contentious 2016 election, Moody-Ramirez said. But these bombings are the subject of an intense investigation that has produced very little information to sustain the cable news channels’ attention.

The American-Statesman has memorialized the victims of these bombings, chronicled the anxiety of a community, illustrated how other bombing suspects were eventually caught and questioned the Austin Police department’s early efforts to tamp down fears by suggesting the first bombing was an isolated incident.

But we don’t know who’s unleashing these attacks and why, or how the victims were chosen — if they were purposely chosen at all.

“I think regarding the bombing, people want a different kind of coverage,” Moody-Ramirez said. “They want answers the media can’t give right now.”

And thanks again to social media, what would normally be the complaints of a few become retweeted and “liked” tens of thousands of times with the help of another divisive force.

NPR’s national security editor Philip Ewing reported Monday evening that some of the activity on Twitter “appears initially to be connected with the Russian social media agitation that we’ve sort of gotten used to since the 2016 presidential race.”

How can we tell?

“There are dashboards and online tools that let us know which accounts are focusing on which hashtags from the Russian influence-mongers who’ve been targeting the United States since 2016 and they, too, have been tweeting about Austin bombings today,” Ewing reported.

And as they did after the Charlottesville protests, last year’s Alabama Senate campaign and the tug-of-war over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, Ewing said, the Russian bots are jacking up the volume on social media debates to make Americans feel even more bitterly divided. All of this comes amid new reporting on the alleged Facebook abuses by Cambridge Analytica to potentially sway elections.

When people distrust reporters and feel overwhelmed by the conflicting noise on social media, some tune out altogether. Jena Heath, a former Statesman editor who now teaches journalism at St. Edward’s University, is glued to current events, but she can understand why some people opt out.

“We live in a surreal time,” she said. “I think people feel bombarded, I think they feel overwhelmed, less in control of the levers of their society, less able to affect change. And so when people feel this way, they pull back, they stop participating.

“Then something really directly relevant to their lives happens, and there’s a sense of, Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?