Courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

For the first time since 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau wants to ask everyone whether they are a U.S. citizen. It may seem to some like an innocent enough question, but it could have a big impact and it’s why states like Connecticut have joined a multi-state lawsuit to block it.

At the end of July, a federal court judge in New York agreed to allow the lawsuit filed by 18 states, including Connecticut, to move forward.

In a separate, but similar multi-state lawsuit brought by the state of California and several cities and counties, a federal judge said last week that he was inclined “to find that the case can proceed,” but didn’t make a ruling.

The Trump administration has filed a motion to dismiss in both lawsuits. According to a statement from the U.S. Commerce Department, every census between 1820 and 1950 had some version of the question.

“Adding citizenship as a census question would break four decades of precedent and create a chilling effect on participation in immigrant communities,” Attorney General George Jepsen said.

New York Judge Jesse Furman cited evidence that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ initial reasoning for adding the question was “pretextual.”

Ross previously stated the decision to add the citizenship question was based on a request from the Justice Department to help it enforce the Voting Rights Act. However, Ross has since acknowledged he asked the Justice Department to write that request and that he was considering adding the citizenship question in February 2017 when he began his job.

“The census is a constitutional duty of the federal government to conduct,” Jaclyn M. Severance, communications director for Jepsen, said. “The U.S. Constitution provides that Representatives ‘shall be apportioned among the several States . . . according to their respective Numbers,’ which requires ‘counting the whole number of persons in each State.’ To ensure fair representation among the states, the Constitution requires that this count be an ‘actual Enumeration’ conducted every 10 years.”

New Haven Mayor Toni Harp recently encouraged residents to write the U.S. Commerce Department to ask them to remove the question.

Harp, like other mayors dealing with undocumented residents, fears that the presence of the question will dissuade many immigrants from completing the census form, because they fear being deported.

That means New Haven and other Northeastern cities could lose representation in Congress, or at least lose aid tied to that population, Harp noted in a WNHH FM interview with Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.

New American Economy, a non-profit research and advisory group based in New York, is circulating a petition urging removal of the citizenship question from the Census.

“Asking about citizenship would lead to the dramatic under-reporting of immigrant communities — both undocumented and documented,” a spokesperson for the group said.

Andrew Lim, the director of qualitative research for the organization, said the current administration’s stance and statements on immigration have created a negative perception that could frighten some people from participating in the census.

“Historically, some demographic groups have proven more difficult to count than others,” Severance said. “Minority and immigrant populations have historically been some of the hardest groups to count accurately in the decennial census, due to issues such as language barriers and distrust of government. For example, the 2010 Census failed to count more than 1.5 million minorities. Indeed, Census Bureau analyses show the fast-growing Hispanic population was undercounted by 1.54 percent in 2010, by 0.71 percent in 2000, and by 4.99 percent in 1990.

It is the plaintiffs’ argument that an unconstitutional citizenship question would further depress participation in an already historically “undercounted demographic.”

Lim said anything that could potentially sway the census results could affect federal funding.

“In Connecticut, 20.9 percent of households did not mail back their 2010 Census questionnaire, and therefore required the Census Bureau to conduct in-person follow-up,” Severance said. “Approximately 22 percent of the population currently lives in hard-to-count neighborhoods. Immigrants account for 14.4 percent of Connecticut’s population, and in 2014, nearly one in every four immigrants in Connecticut was undocumented. Connecticut currently receives hundreds of millions in federal funds for infrastructure development, education and social services based on census population figures, all of which would be affected by population undercounts on the next census.”