Government

Iowa joins lawsuit against Census citizenship question

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Iowa could lose millions of dollars in federal funding if the 2020 Census includes a citizenship question, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday to block the move.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller joined the suit, which was brought by 17 states, six cities and counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“We believe everyone should be counted. Adding a citizenship question would undermine participation and accuracy,” Miller said in a statement Tuesday.

The Trump administration announced last month it intends to include a question on the 2020 Census asking whether people are citizens of the United States.

The Census Bureau already conducts a survey asking the question, but the administration said including it on the once-per-decade count of everyone in the country would help enforce voting rights laws aimed at protecting minorities.

Critics say the current survey is adequate for that purpose, and the citizenship question will just end up undermining the decennial census, especially among minority and immigrant populations.

In the lawsuit, the states argue the question is inconsistent with legal and constitutional responsibilities and that it will jeopardize funding streams for states.

The Census is a requirement of the U.S. Constitution, and it’s used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding.

In Iowa, the lawsuit claims, even a 1 percent undercount would cost the state $38 million in Medicaid funding. It also notes that Iowa got $506 million in highway trust fund grants in 2015. The grants are allocated based on population.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office disputed the idea the change would hurt Iowa.

“Immigration status has been a part of the census in the past, and Gov. Reynolds doesn’t believe that adding it back in will have any negative effect on Iowa,” said Brenna Smith, a spokeswoman.

A citizenship question was included on the Census through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, but the last time it was asked of everyone was in 1950.

In 2010, Iowa had one of the highest response rates in the country to the Census Bureau’s mail questionnaire, but the lawsuit notes that 16.7 percent of Iowans still didn’t return it. The suit adds that 5 percent of the state’s population are immigrants and that more than a quarter of them are undocumented.

If a Census questionnaire isn’t returned, government employees seek out people personally.

However, the lawsuit says that many of those people are in what are called “hard to count neighborhoods,” which include those in which more than a quarter of mail-in questionnaires aren’t returned. About 100,000, or nearly 3 percent of Iowans, live in hard to count neighborhoods, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.

Some states are much higher than that, though. More than a third of New York’s population live in hard to count neighborhoods, the lawsuit says.

The state of California already has filed a separate suit seeking to block the administration from adding the citizenship question.

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