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How the Supreme Court ruling on the census citizenship question could affect Utah

Romney calls the ask 'reasonable,' McAdams disagrees

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to pave the way for a citizenship question on the 2020 census, a move several say could encourage a more precise population count in the Beehive State.

The nation's high court ruled Thursday that the Trump administration provided "more of a distraction" than an explanation for the question. But it wasn't known if the administration would have time to address that before next week, when census forms are to be printed.

Trump said in a tweet he has asked attorneys if the the census can be delayed, "no matter how long," until the court can review additional information and make a decision. Federal law requires the count to begin April 1.

In the event the question does not appear on the forms, Utah will reap a more accurate population count, said Pamela Perlich, the state's top demographer. That's in large part because questionnaires that do not contain the query could allay fears among immigrants, refugees and those around them surrounding how the information will be used, she said.

"If you put the citizenship question on, people wonder why it's there," said Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. "If you feel that your participation in the survey somehow brings attention to your neighbors and your family, you weigh that fear of high consequence to people that you care about."

FILE - The Supreme Court is seen under stormy skies in Washington, Thursday, June 20, 2019.
FILE - The Supreme Court is seen under stormy skies in Washington, Thursday, June 20, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The Trump administration had cited the need to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. On Thursday, some of Utah's Republican leaders told the Deseret News they believe the question is reasonable, but Democrats criticized it.

The Census Bureau's own research has found that millions of Hispanic Americans and immigrants would go uncounted if the question appears on the forms. The concern is stoked in Utah by the 2019 Legislature's failure to fund a push to promote the survey, though state lawmakers may revisit it later this year.

Luis Garza, executive director of the immigrant rights group Comunidades Unidas, called the Supreme Court decision "very encouraging."

"I think ultimately it will be a positive affirmation, in terms of communities being more open to participation," he said, though many are distrustful of the survey.

A possible influx of state money could help in part by covering the cost of computers for community centers, Garza said, where people can fill out the form in a place they trust. Next year is the first time the census moves largely online.

Demonstrators gather at the Supreme Court as the justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census, on Capitol
FILE - Demonstrators gather at the Supreme Court as the justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, June 27, 2019.
J. Scott Applewhite

Garza said he hopes the Census Bureau will emphasize its plans to protect a person's information from security threats and other federal agencies ahead of the April 1 count.

The tally is important to Utah's Hispanic immigrant population, he said, because it tracks change in the community and also helps Utah get the resources it needs.

Under the court's decision, however, there still is a chance the census could ask every American household about the citizenship of its residents, Garza noted.

Even if that happens, he said, "our community will be counted."

The federal government uses the population figures to decide how much money it sets aside for roads, schools and other programs. The data also helps determine how congressional, legislative and State School Board boundaries are drawn.

Shannon Simonsen, co-chairwoman of the state's Complete Count Committee, said she hopes the long-awaited decision Thursday will help people feel safe completing the survey.

"No matter who they are, we want all Utahns counted," she said. The Pew Research Center estimates Utah was home to about 95,000 unauthorized immigrants as of 2016.

Earlier this year, Rep. Karen Kwan, a Democrat from Murray, sought $500,000 from the state to fund a Utah public relations push to make sure all residents are counted, but her effort failed.

Now, she plans to seek $1 million during a potential special legislative session that may address tax reform later this year. The money would target several communities at risk of undercount, including those mostly made up of college students, older Utahns, immigrants or rural families, she said. It would also cover a broader media campaign and other efforts to reach the entire state.

"We need the money. We needed it last March, not next March," she said.

Kwan called the court's ruling a partial victory, noting the justices honed in on the administration's motive but it remains unclear whether the question could ultimately end up on the survey.

In addition to helping Utah leaders plan for growth and a more diverse population, the count also helps people understand what's happening in their own communities, noted Perlich, the demographer.

For example, data on a flu outbreak in an undercounted neighborhood could over-inflate the rate of the sickness there, because the total population isn't taken into account. The same goes for other statistics like crime and mortality rates, Perlich noted.

"If we undercount a community, we can misinterpret all kinds of things," she said.

U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat, had opposing views of the question. Other members of Utah's congressional delegation did not have an immediate comment.

Romney signaled he believed the Trump administration's move to add the query makes sense.

"It seems reasonable to include a question about citizenship, and we’ll see how this plays out in the courts," the Utah Republican said.

"The Constitution says that the U.S. census should count everyone," McAdams countered in a statement. "A question about citizenship status would deter individuals from answering the census and result in an undercount. I believe that more accurate data is always better then less accurate data."

Gov. Gary Herbert acknowledged such worries. "I understand the motivation" for the question. Knowing how many residents are U.S. citizens could help guide policy decisions, though probing a person's legal status does cause people to become concerned,” he said during KSL NewsRadio's "Let Me Speak to the Governor" program.

Contributing: Associated Press