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Hall torn as justices seem poised to approve asking citizenship question on census
Some fear participation will be deterred in immigrant community
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Immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census, in Washington, Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

When you fill out your census form in 2020, you could be asked if you’re a U.S. citizen.

That’s the plan backed by the Trump administration and lauded by some groups, which say it will provide an accurate picture of how many legal citizens there are in the country.

But foes, who’ve challenged the plan in court, say it will discourage people from answering truthfully -- or at all.

The citizenship question has made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments on Tuesday.

At stake in the outcome is the balance of political power: The results of the census affect the number of seats states have in the House of Representatives and the distribution of federal dollars.

So far the Trump administration’s plan has been blocked by three lower courts because of the potential for it to discourage immigrants from participating in the count.

But the Supreme Court’s conservative majority revealed a readiness Tuesday to allow the citizenship question to be asked.

This stands in contrast to experts at the U.S. Census Bureau, who have concluded that without a citizenship question, the census would produce a more accurate picture of the U.S. population. They based this off of people’s potential reluctance to say if they or others in their household are not citizens. Federal law requires people to complete the census accurately and fully.

Josh McCall
Josh McCall speaks to a crowd at Brenau University's Pearce Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, during his Democratic bid for the U.S. House seat from Georgia's 9th District. - photo by Austin Steele

Some Democrats in Hall County agree that the question about citizenship will deter people from participating and add false information to the census data.

“This will accomplish nothing in terms of counting how many people are in the country, which is what the census is for,” said Josh McCall, chair of Georgia’s 9th District Democrats. “Putting that question on there will definitely scare people who don’t have documentation of citizenship.”

But not everyone with interests in the immigrant community agrees.

Art Gallegos

Art Gallegos Jr., co-founder of Latinos Conservative Organization in Gainesville, said if the question is added to the census, it would make a positive difference in its accuracy.

“It would be a great additional question to have in our census because it’s going to give us a better understanding of our growth in each community,” Gallegos said. “I’d love to hear that there is a better growth in Latinos becoming U.S. citizens.”

That’s an outcome of particular interest in Hall County. In 2010, the Hispanic or Latino population was at 28.6% of the total, a percentage that could climb along with the county’s growing population. According to the Census Bureau’s July 2018 estimates, Hall has reached a population of 202,148.

But that is only an estimate, and getting an accurate count requires full participation.

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Elizabeth Casper, front left, leads a march through the rain during the Women's Day March in downtown Gainesville on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Elizabeth Casper, vice president of Young Democrats of Hall County, said the question would ultimately cause people in cities like Gainesville to decline participation, “for fear of retaliation against undocumented friends or family members.”

“Because representation is based on the census, this more than likely means that Georgia will be highly underrepresented,” Casper said.

Kim Copeland, chairman of the Hall County Democratic Party, said the Trump administration’s plan not only would intimidate undocumented immigrants, but even Latino citizens.

“If I were the head of the household and I was a citizen along with my children and wife, but my brother is here and undocumented, I wouldn’t put him on the form or fill it out,” Copeland said. “I know this is true in the Hispanic community because I’ve talked to them.”

Kim Copeland
Kim Copeland

While Gallegos is aware of the fears, he said he wants to motivate Hall County’s Latino community to answer truthfully.

“It’s a count of the growth in our city, county and state,” he said. “We need to know that the Latino community is growing in massive quantities. I encourage not just the Latino or Hispanic community to participate, but all communities to answer these questions.”

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said the census citizenship question is one of constitutionality, a matter he said “is incredibly simple.”

Miller said that the Supreme Court has long held that questions beyond a head count are constitutional, as long as the information sought out is “necessary and proper” for assisting the government in carrying out its enumerated powers.

“The census, per the Court, is the ‘linchpin of the federal statistical system,’” Miller said. “Until Congress passes a law that says, ‘you can’t ask a citizenship question,’ the matter is an easy one legally speaking.”

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Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman

That sentiment was echoed Tuesday by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, an appointee of President Donald Trump, who recommended that Congress could change the law if it negatively affected the population count.

"Why doesn't Congress prohibit the asking of the citizenship question?" Kavanaugh asked.

Lower court judges ruled that the question would violate the provision of the Constitution that calls for a count of the population, regardless of citizenship status.

But Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, defended Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ decision to add the citizenship question, arguing that Ross has wide discretion in designing the census questionnaire and the courts should not second guess his decision. The administration also says the additional question is constitutional because of its history of being included on past censuses.

The last time people could find the question on the census form was in 1950.

A decision is expected by late June, which would allow time to print the April 2020 census forms.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Brett Kavanaugh