Census Halt Poses Particular Threat To NJ And Its Immigrants

By Jeannie O'Sullivan | October 23, 2020, 9:43 PM EDT

Experts fear the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the Trump administration to end census data collection early could have dire ramifications for New Jersey and its high number of immigrants, who comprise hard-to-count communities that depend on federal funding allocated in accordance with population numbers.

The accelerated schedule approved by the high court this month ends hopes of catching up on information-gathering efforts that were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The justices are also now considering the Trump administration's bid to exclude unauthorized immigrants from census numbers, intensifying the foreign-born population's historic distrust of the government and subsequent hesitance to reveal household information.

The confluence of politics and a pandemic — which hit the Garden State and New York the hardest this spring in terms of positive cases and deaths — compounded the already tricky task of accurately assessing New Jersey's population. With a foreign-born residency pegged at 23.4% by the U.S. Census Bureau in its latest estimates, the state currently trails only California in its percentage of immigrants.

Attorney Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute For Social Justice, one of the nonprofits involved in the Garden State's census outreach efforts, blames what she sees as politicization of the census sparked by the litigation surrounding the Trump administration's immigrant policies.

"Normally, the census is just a process we do, a nonpartisan, noncontroversial thing that's done every 10 years. But this year, it has been enmeshed in the legal system," Patel told Law360.

A census undercount could reduce the federal money New Jersey receives each year for more than 100 programs, including Medicaid and Medicare, nutrition benefits and early childhood education.

That's critical in New Jersey, which has the nation's densest population and considerable needs when it comes to public assistance programs, transportation infrastructure and other endeavors that benefit the population as a whole.

"The highways in Hudson County, New Jersey, are traversed far more than a rural road in Kentucky," said McCarter & English LLP partner Guillermo C. Artiles, chair of the firm's government affairs practice, about the need for federal funding.

A native of immigrant-heavy Union City, New Jersey, Artiles noted the suspicion and fear foreign-born residents have for the government, and called the shortening of the census data collection period "shameful."

The litigation is rooted in the August move by the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Commerce to clip one month from the period of enumeration — the door-to-door data collection process to account for households that didn't respond to the census questionnaire by mail or online — in order to give more time to process the data to meet the statutory deadline of Dec. 31 to turn it over to president.

Civil rights groups and municipalities sued to overturn the accelerated schedule, arguing that it ignored the monthslong delay of enumeration efforts caused by the pandemic and posed a "grave threat" of an inaccurate count. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, rendered Oct. 13, overturned a Ninth Circuit panel's decision requiring the data collection to continue until Oct. 31 and effectively allowed the bureau to end collection immediately.

There's a lot at stake for New Jersey, which lost three congressional seats over the last three censuses, said state Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, a Middlesex County Democrat who serves on the NJ Complete Count Commission.

The Garden State's foreign-born population rose from 12.5% to 21% during that time, 1990 to 2010, according to Census Bureau data. Lopez also pointed to figures showing that 135,000 New Jersey residents were not counted in the 2010 census.

Lopez told Law360 she was proud of New Jersey's outreach and data collection efforts given the challenges posed this year, but still blasted the justices' decision. In a statement after the ruling, she predicted "irreparable harm" to the communities that need the census-driven funding the most, which include immigrants and people of color.

"The census is absolutely critical," Lopez told Law360.

With that in mind, the Census 2020 NJ Coalition, a group of about 30 nonprofits, convened two years ago to brainstorm ways to get the word out to hard-to-reach populations about the crucial importance of an accurate count. Yet the pandemic delayed or canceled many of the outreach efforts crucial to promoting the importance of an accurate count, according to Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

The coalition formed committees targeting a dozen different hard-to-count communities and joined a successful call for state lawmakers to dedicate $9 million for outreach, said Patel, who directs the institute's Democracy & Justice Program.

The coalition's promotion efforts included door-to-door outreach that was scheduled to launch in March. But that's when the pandemic hit New Jersey, prompting Gov. Phil Murphy's shelter-in-place order and the Census Bureau to change the start of door-to-door enumeration from May until July.

Social-distancing mandates cut short the coalition's own door-to-door outreach plans, which were set to begin when the census began accepting self-responses via mail or online, Patel said.

While New Jersey's ultimate overall self-response rate of 69.5% for the 2020 census bested its 67.6% response a decade ago, response rates dipped in many individual communities with hard-to-reach populations. Census data shows that rates fell slightly in urban areas like Atlantic City, Camden, Newark and Trenton, leaving more households at risk for being uncounted.

The enumeration process that followed the self-response period didn't leave William Healey, a political science professor at The College of New Jersey, with much confidence about the accuracy of the Garden State's count. Healey spent eight weeks working as an enumerator in Hunterdon County, which has a growing Latino population.

Technology glitches with the Census Bureau app led to delays and overall frustration during data collection efforts, said Healey, who fears the collected data may be flawed.

He successfully collected information in only about half of the roughly 2,000 households he visited, although he noted that other enumerators may have been assigned to those homes afterward.

Many times during his treks, Healey said, residents who opened their doors would have the look of someone who sees someone they don't want to see.

"I got that clear impression when going into communities that there was suspicion as to our work," Healey said, wondering if more outreach might have made a difference.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc and Emily Kokoll.

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