President Donald Trump won Republican-friendly Texas by nine points in 2016, securing his path to the White House and the GOP’s hold over Washington. But now this ruby red state, with its mélange of arid landscapes, oversized steaks and cosmopolitan cities brimming with people from around the world, could lose representation in Congress and billions of federal dollars because of a Trump administration decision to add a question about citizenship status to the U.S. census in 2020.
The change, instated by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Monday night, would bring back a question last seen in the 1950s. Ross claims the citizenship question will be used to increase data and prevent voter discrimination. But detractors argue the shift is intended to scare immigrants and prevent them from participating, and it’s the voters in Texas, many of whom backed Trump, who could be among the hardest hit.
Once the new federal survey lands, Texas, a state that already exceeds the national average for low census response scores, could face new obstacles in accurately representing its population, a figure that determines Congressional representation and federal funding. A vocal group of bipartisan critics say that questions about citizenship would dissuade a large percentage of legal and undocumented Texas residents from answering the census, which is used to calculate the state’s official population. There are nearly 5 million immigrants living in Texas, and more than half of them are undocumented or live with someone who is.
An undercount of Texas’s immigrant population could lead to underrepresentation in Congress, less federal funding for citizens still recovering from Hurricane Harvey and fewer Congressional districts, which could stymie the so-called blue wave of Democrats winning office in the typically Republican state.
The new census question “will scare away millions of people in our country from participating, skewing the results and costing Texas billions of dollars in federal funds over the next 10 years,” said U.S. Representative Joaquín Castro, a Democrat representing parts of San Antonio and Austin, in an email to Newsweek.
Texas is one of a handful states slated to gain seats in Congress after the 2020 census count, in part because of its growing immigrant community. In 2010, the state added four new seats fueled largely by a 42 percent growth in its Hispanic population.
“Texas was supposed to pick up three seats in Congress after the next Census and this decision could cost us one of those,” said Castro.
Funding and representation often go hand-in-hand, and an undercount could limit both. The census is used by the federal government to allocate more than $675 billion in federal funds annually for health, welfare, infrastructure and other federal services. Nearly 600,000 undocumented immigrants reside in Houston alone.
“While our immigrant communities include both documented and undocumented, today’s anti-immigrant rhetoric can only suppress an accurate census count–in Houston and across our country,” Margaret Wallace Brown, deputy director for the Houston Planning and Development Department, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January. Brown expressed concern about “the diaspora of Houstonians flooded out of their homes and businesses due to Hurricane Harvey. The interruption of established social and community networks will further complicate an accurate count.”
An undercount could mean “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,” said U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso running for the Senate against incumbent Ted Cruz, in an email to Newsweek.
Cruz, who was born in Canada and maintains hardline anti-immigration views, was part of a group that recommended the additional census question to the Department of Commerce. The senator called the question a “reasonable, common-sense addition” to the Census in a group statement with Republican Senators Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, and Jim Inhofe, of Oklahoma, Monday night. “It is imperative that the data gathered in the Census is reliable, given the wide-ranging impacts it will have on U.S. policy,” Cruz added.
Democrats argue that the citizenship question would undermine a growing left-leaning populace that Democrats are hoping can turn Texas from a deeply red to purple state. In Texas’s three largest counties, Democratic primary voters outnumbered Republicans in 2018, a significant change from 2014 when the opposite was true.
“This change is purely political,” said Ryan Robinson, Austin City demographer who has worked through four decennial censuses, to Newsweek. “There’s nothing we’re going to gain from an efficiency standpoint. This is all about Democrats versus Republicans.”
Immigrants tend to congregate in cities, which largely vote Democratic in Texas. But having fewer Congressional districts representing these population centers “will slow the march toward purple; this will be a step or two backwards,” said Robinson.
Democrats also fear that Texas Republicans will use the new data to redraw Congressional districts to limit the power of immigrant voters, who tend to lean left.
“Beyond decade-long impacts on Texas families, it will also work in tandem with gerrymandering to erode the voting rights of those in our state and threaten our representation in the Federal government,” said O’Rourke.
Outrage around the issue, however, could work in Democrats’ favor ahead of the November midterm elections. American Bridge, a progressive group that supports Democratic candidates, says the change would fuel voter turnout among Latino and other immigrant groups. “This cowardly attack on the Constitution and the democratic process is an attempt by Donald Trump to sell Texas and a host of other states short, denying them the federal dollars that they deserve,” said spokesman Andrew Bates to Newsweek. “Keeping this bigoted dog whistle of a question from being part of the 2020 census is yet another reason the American public will vote for a Democratic Congress in November.”
Ross defended the addition of the question, saying that the value of the data would outweigh any underrepresentation. “Secretary Ross carefully considered the argument that the reinstatement of the citizenship question on the decennial census would depress response rate,” a Department of Commerce spokesperson told Newsweek. “Secretary Ross found that the need for accurate citizenship data and the limited burden that the reinstatement of the citizenship question would impose outweigh fears about a potentially lower response rate.”
But a letter circulated internally at the U.S. Census bureau in September showed that the government workers had found that asking about citizenship caused fear and could possibly reduce the response rate of immigrants. There had been a “recent increase in respondents spontaneously expressing concerns about confidentiality in some of our pretesting studies conducted in 2017,” the memo said, referring to the American Community Survey, an ongoing census survey that already collects data about citizenship status.
Adding a question to the census less than two years before 2020 is irresponsible, said Lloyd Potter, former Texas state demographer and director of the Texas State Data Center at the University of Texas San Antonio. “We’ve been working on these questions for a decade and to all of a sudden put a question out there that hasn’t been tested is unprecedented,” he told Newsweek. The census typically needs about five years to accurately test the impacts and validity of a question, he said.
“The census is a huge logistic problem and the bureau is very good at systematically developing methods and testing them, and to throw something so rushed into this very structured and well-regulated process is my biggest concern,” said Potter.