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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. Census: Yakima officials debate merits of White House decision to ask about citizenship

By Alec Regimbal Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. – Critics say asking census respondents if they are U.S. citizens will lead to inaccurate counts and a resulting in drop federal funding, while supporters say it’s the only surefire way to prevent voter fraud and accurately represent voters.

The Trump administration’s decision last week to include the citizenship question in the 2020 census has raised cheers and alarm in the Yakima Valley, home to significant numbers of immigrants, many of them undocumented.

Supporters of the decision, including Yakima County Republican Committee chairwoman Benine McDonnell, say asking the question reduces the possibility of voting rights violations by allowing officials to accurately record the number of people who are eligible to vote.

“It’s only the citizens who are eligible to vote, so it’s a great way to see that,” McDonnell said.

But critics say the question may prompt some immigrants – even those here legally – to avoid taking part in the census altogether.

“It’s an intimidating question,” said Laura Armstrong, the director of La Casa Hogar, a local nonprofit that helps immigrant families with education and legal services. “There’s been an increase in intimidation in handing out personal information to government officials … especially within the last year. I don’t think that’s a question people would feel comfortable answering.”

And that could result in a substantial undercount, which would spell problems for many public services in Yakima that rely on census data for federal funding.

“Asking that question would lead to major miscounts, which would lead to a lot of under-served and under-serviced people,” she said.

The census is used to decide how to distribute federal money locally, with at least $13.7 billion being sent to the state in 2015. Federal money is spent in Yakima for highway planning and construction, low-income preschool programs, free breakfast and lunch for all students in the Yakima School District, and health costs for Medicaid and Medicare recipients, among many other programs.

The state Office of Financial Management wasn’t able to give a breakdown of how an undercount would affect such programs, but said each missed resident would result in a loss of roughly $1,900 in federal money per year to Yakima other cities in the state. With a population of roughly 94,000, Yakima receives about $178 million in federal funds.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, Yakima County has one of the highest percentages in the nation of immigrants who did not immigrate legally, at about 10 percent. The overall number of undocumented residents is higher in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area, but the percentage is lower at about 8 percent.

The city of Yakima is not taking a stance on the census asking respondents about their citizenship, but spokesman Randy Beehler said an inaccurate count would be a definite concern.

“There’s so much data in the census that’s used in so many different places, so an accurate count is important,” he said. “The census data gives us an idea of the demographic makeup of the city, which can influence how we allocate resources.”

The census is conducted every 10 years, but Beehler said the state Office of Financial Management uses census data to provide annual population estimates to the city in the time between counts. The city uses those population estimates to make determinations for funding public projects – such as where to build a park – and when drawing voting district lines.

“If you have inaccurate counts, it will affect how our districts are drawn, which affects us from a fair representation standpoint,” Beehler said.

Each city voting district must be roughly equal in population size, Beehler said. If several residents in an area don’t take the census and aren’t counted, he said, then the city would have to make the district bigger to include more people. As a result, the elected city official from that district might not reflect the interests of a majority of the district’s residents, he said.

Beehler said this concern isn’t unique to city governments; it’s common among government officials at the state and federal levels who also draw legislative lines based on census data, he said.

But McDonnell, the Yakima County Republican Committee chairwoman, said drawing district lines by population can create unequal representation since non-eligible voters are counted. Keeping track of who can vote, which the citizenship question would do, and drawing district lines that take that data into account would actually be a boon to all levels of government, she said.

On Tuesday, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that Washington will join at least 11 other states in suing the Trump administration over the decision.

“The Census Bureau’s own research reveals asking people about their citizenship status could significantly undermine its constitutional mandate: an accurate count of everyone in the United States, regardless of immigration status,” he said in a release. “If Washington state’s large immigrant population isn’t accurately counted, the impact on our congressional representation and billions of dollars in federal funds our state receives could be jeopardized.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said he’s unsure how a citizenship question would affect the census count, but he underscored the importance of knowing how many people live within the country.

“If response rates decreased dramatically, then that would have a real impact on the way congressional districts would be drawn in our state and how federal funds would be allocated,” he said in a statement to the Yakima Herald-Republic. “On a similar issue, the Supreme Court last year unanimously ruled that states drawing election districts should determine districts by total population rather than voting-eligible population. The bottom line is that we should know the total population of people living within our borders, and the census is the tool the federal government uses to get an accurate number.”

The decision is drawing ire from other lawmakers representing Washington in Congress. Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray condemned the decision in separate statements made to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

“The administration’s move is extremely concerning because not only does this action intimidate immigrants, it could also distort the reality on the ground – and that is a huge disservice to communities across our state and around our country that rely on accurate information to determine representation in Congress as well as figure out how much federal funding goes to our communities for everything from grants for hospitals, to schools, and more,” Murray said.