It’s Not Just the Citizenship Question—the Digital Divide Could Hurt the Count of Latinos in the Census

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Fear of government, a question about citizenship, and uncertain internet connections have created the perfect storm for an undercount of the Latino population, a new report argues.

The 2020 Census is different from past surveys in two important ways. It is the first time that the Bureau will offer an online response option, and could be the first time in decades that a question about respondents’ citizenship will appear.

The National Latino Commission on Census 2020 and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials released a report on Wednesday that explores the challenges posed by the intersection of these new factors.

Alex Padilla, the California secretary of state and co-chair of the commission, said at an event about the report in Washington, D.C. that this Census is taking place at a time of heightened fear of the federal government. “People need to be able to trust the government with their data, and with the digital transference of that data,” he said.

But before people can trust the government with their data, they need to provide it. Though the online response option is meant to make it easier to respond to the Census, leaders of the Latino community are skeptical that it will achieve its goals. The report says the focus on online participation will likely “depress the response rate of immigrants—Latinos in particular—as well as of the elderly and rural residents.”

The census is of key importance because the data collected about exactly who is living in the country is used to determine how many congressional representatives each state gets, and how much federal money flows to states and local governments. For months, Latino leaders have warned that the focus on immigration enforcement by the Trump administration, along with a plan to ask Census respondents about their citizenship, will result in depressed responses.  

The Trump administration has maintained that it added the citizenship question to get better information for Voting Rights Act enforcement, but judges who have heard lawsuits challenging its inclusion on the Census have ruled against the federal government. That controversy was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this spring, with a ruling expected next month. If the justices decide in favor of including the question, which some observers of the recent oral arguments opined they seem poised to do, the Census Bureau has estimated that they may undercount the population by 6.5 million people.

For the report, the commission surveyed Latino communities in Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, Orlando, and Columbus, Ohio. A common concern was not just around asking about citizenship status, but directed at what some saw as the Bureau’s lack of planning around the digital option. Community leaders said it seemed like the federal government had not fully considered the amount of houses that do not have internet, the lack of digital literacy among even those who are connected, problems with the form’s functionality on mobile phones, and security concerns around data transference.

Texas state Rep. Cesar Blanco said that the digital option would be difficult to implement in his community in El Paso, where 30% of rural and rural-adjacent homes lack internet. “And [it’s] not just the rural communities but communities like mine with folks who can’t afford Internet,” Blando added.

Ditas Katangue, the director of California Complete Count, raised the issue of how the Census Bureau will decide the 20% of households that also receive a paper questionnaire, given that FCC data on broadband access may not represent who actually has internet. “I continue to tell them that there’s a difference between broadband access and broadband subscription rate,” she said.

Many more people fall on the unconnected side of the digital divide than just those that lack access to broadband in rural areas. People who have been displaced by disasters like hurricanes, for example, often lack a reliable internet connection. Others, like new immigrants and farm laborers, live in non-traditional housing. Ilene Jacobs, of California Rural Legal Assistance, said that people who “live under someone’s porch, in someone’s backyard, [or] under a camper’s shell” may not be reflected in the Census’ official count. “The Census is not designed to reach people in special and vulnerable populations,” Jacobs said.

Insufficient digital literacy provides another obstacle for an accurate count of the Latino community, as the report found that 75% of Latinos surveyed said they would be more comfortable with a paper form, and 40% said an online form was inconvenient.

Speaking at the event, James Christy, the assistant director for field operations at the Census Bureau noted that participating in the Census will be “easier than it ever has been,” and that the Census Bureau is “ready to go, on track and on schedule, and within budget.”

Christy also mentioned that the Census now offers 12 non-English languages for over-the-phone responses, but did not directly address issues raised by the Latino community leaders and left after his presentation without taking questions. Before leaving, Christy assured that “Census responses are safe, secure, and protected by law.”

But Latino leaders were unconvinced.

Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said that the Bureau needs a wake-up call. "We have the Census Bureau continually telling us everything is on track," Vargas said. "No. Everything is not fine. The Census Bureau needs to be proceeding, understanding the real problems it is facing, and can't be sugarcoating what is happening throughout the country."

Padilla was similarly unimpressed with the Bureau’s presentation. “It’s great to hear those assurances from Mr. Christy,” he said. “But we need to hear those assurances from his higher-ups, and from the White House. And then we need to trust but verify.”

The assembled coalition of Latino leaders urged swift action on the Census Bureau’s part to address the areas of concern that could lead to an undercount of Latinos. Vargas stressed that it is of paramount importance that the public knows what to expect. “For every person not counted in the Census, all of us are harmed,” he said.