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Ahead Of 'High-Risk' 2020 Census, Austin Considers Ways To Boost Local Participation

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
The U.S. Commerce Department says it will put a question about citizenship on the 2020 census.

It’s not unusual for local governments to help facilitate the nationwide census. But in Austin, those efforts are likely to be ramped up ahead of the 2020 census because of concerns of potential undercounting.

For the first time since 1950, the questionnaire will ask people to disclose their citizenship status – though the question is being challenged in court. Federal officials say the information is needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, but it's also led to fears that immigrant households will be drastically undercounted. For months, watchdog groups have raised concerns about inadequate funding and testing of new technology, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office has called the 2020 count “high-risk.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler agrees the stakes are high. Data from the count affect everything from funding for local schools to how congressional districts are drawn.

“The effort of local communities to help ensure that as many people get counted as possible is something that we need to participate in because we’re detrimentally impacted if we don’t,” Adler says.

Adler is a trustee with the nonpartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors. The organization is part of a group of 18 attorneys general and six cities that is suing to block the citizenship question from being included in the 2020 census. They say it would depress participation in states like Texas with large immigrant populations. Adler is hopeful the courts will agree.

“The goal of the census is to count everyone,” he says, “so to artificially or gratuitously put things on the census questionnaire that will only serve to decrease participation is something that I think runs afoul of the constitutional charge to do the census.”

In the meantime, city leaders are considering a plan to boost local participation. City Demographer Ryan Robinson addressed concerns about the 2020 census in a recent memo to the mayor and City Council. His plan calls for the city and Travis County to create a Complete Count Committee tasked with doing outreach and ensuring an accurate count. Robinson also recommends that the city hire a special projects manager for the census by early 2019. The effort, and the funding for it, would have to be approved by council members.

Robinson says there are heightened fears among some immigrant families about sharing their citizenship status with the federal government.

“Maybe there’s some way that we could turn this into a motivator,” Robinson says. “In other words, we could somehow say, ‘OK, you want to know citizenship? Here we are. Count us,’ and then we could ostensibly allay people’s fears by saying that … the Census Bureau does not share your information with anyone.”

The U.S. government has a rule that says it won’t release any personally identifiable information from a census until 72 years after data are collected. That’s why some watchdog groups are encouraging immigrant families to respond, regardless of their citizenship status.

“If Latinos are not counted, those communities will get less than their fair share of political representation and resources for an entire decade,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the nonprofit NALEO Education Fund.

Syeda Hasan is a senior editor at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @syedareports.