The U.S. Census Bureau is hoping to attract resumes from about 100 people in Yakima County for temporary jobs related to the 2020 census, a spokesman said this week.

But in Yakima, a city with large migrant and Hispanic populations, concerns about the census remain — including a controversial question about citizenship.

In a change from past surveys, the census could ask residents if they are U.S. citizens. The citizenship question is tied up in federal court, the subject of a 2018 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The proposed question first sparked unease in Valley residents last year, when the Yakima Herald-Republic reported on it.

The primary concern is that those who are “non-citizens,” and often from low-income or minority communities, will refuse to participate in the census if the citizenship question is included. An “undercount” of the population would then result, skewing census data and, therefore, the amount of federal and state funding the city of Yakima could receive for health care, education, and other projects.

“The amount of funding the City of Yakima is eligible to receive from state and federal sources is impacted by census data,” Yakima Mayor Kathy Coffey said, in a press release.  “That’s why a complete and accurate count is so important.”

The citizenship question

Article 1, Section 2 of The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years in order to produce a count of “the whole Number of free Persons” in the United States.

The counts originally were used to establish representation in Congress. The data now also help determine the allocation of billions of dollars of federal and state funding to local governments for use in schools, hospitals and road projects, among other social services initiatives.

The U.S. Department of Justice asked the Census Bureau for the addition of a citizenship question in December 2017, saying  the question was “critical” for protecting against racial discrimination in voting.  The Census Bureau’s website enumerates additional uses for data the citizenship question would reveal.

“Agencies and policy makers use our published statistics to set and evaluate immigration policies and laws, understand the experiences of different immigrant groups, and enforce laws, policies and regulations against discrimination based on national origin,” the website states.

The Census Bureau makes clear, on its website, that the question would be used to collect data for “statistical purposes only” and would not be used to arrest or deport non-citizens.

“Census answers are protected by law,” the Census website states. “It’s against the law for the Census Bureau to publicly release responses in any way that could identify any person or household.”

But that reassurance was not enough for the ACLU, which filed its lawsuit against the Trump administration in June 2018 on behalf of 18 states, 15 cities and counties, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and several immigrants’ rights groups. It said the citizenship question poses an “egregious” violation of federal law, which would “dramatically reduce the political power of and federal funding allocated to immigrant communities of color.”

More than 130 organizations — including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Brennan Center for Justice and Washington state’s Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment – filed friend of the court briefs against motions to dismiss two other lawsuits that challenge the citizenship question.

In January, Judge Jesse Furman, acting for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,  ruled that the citizenship question would result in “a veritable smorgasbord” of violations to the Administrative Procedure Act, which would result in “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people” going uncounted in the census. 

Brian Robick, communications director for the Washington chapter of the ACLU, said the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, bypassing the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals because of the “tight timeline” for the 2020 census.

The case should be heard in April, Robick said.

Local reaction

According to Census Bureau statistics from July 2018, the most recent data available, 49 percent of Yakima County residents identified as Hispanic or Latino and 18 percent of the total population lived below the federal poverty line.

In Yakima, the nonprofit organization La Casa Hogar works with Spanish-speaking individuals looking to learn or brush up on their English, obtain GEDs, or become official U.S. citizens.

Angelica Reyes Mejia, La Casa Hogar's adult education coordinator, said she never asks clients about their citizenship status. Those who come to La Casa Hogar are welcome — whether they are U.S. citizens, permanent residents who are non-citizens, or undocumented workers.

“We don’t ask for the status because we don’t need it,” Reyes Mejia said. “It’s not our job to determine that. Our services are to educate and connect. This is a safe place.”

Reyes Mejia had strong personal opinions about what the citizenship question on the 2020 census would mean for Yakima’s official count.

“People who see the question  are going to think, ‘They are going to come to my house and arrest me because I am answering this,’” she said, speaking on behalf of herself and not her organization. “We’re going to miss a lot of people in the Valley who won’t answer.”

Reyes Mejia mentioned that enrollment for the nonprofit’s citizenship class skyrocketed after President Donald Trump took office, with clients worried that even permanent resident status would not be enough for them to remain legally in the country. 

“They were afraid, and with the citizenship question it would be the same thing,” she said.

Reyes Mejia pointed to needed services — particularly the area’s schools — where a reduction in funding could be disastrous.

“There’s money, but not in this area,” she said. “Citizens or not, it’s fair for all of us to receive the same resources and services that are available for every person here.”

This week, Yakima city leaders also said they hope the citizenship question goes away completely.

City spokesman Randy Beehler said Yakima received $32.6 million in various state and federal funding in 2018, most of which was “tied to data that in some way comes from the census.”

The city has used past funding for transportation projects, community development grants and school construction projects. An “undercount” of city residents would “directly affect” the city’s ability to get funding, Beehler said. 

That’s why the city plans to use its social media platforms, its newsletter and the Y-PAC cable television channel to reach out to the community about the importance of completing the 2020 census, Beehler said.

Census Bureau recruitment

The U.S. Census Bureau is hiring thousands nationwide to ensure as accurate a count as possible for the 2020 Census, according to a February press release. 

The Los Angeles Regional Census Center responds to census-related issues for the state of Washington. Donald Bendz, a media specialist with the center, said he hopes at least 100 applicants for the open positions will come from Yakima County.

Two types of positions are open: census takers and census field supervisors.

Census takers, who start at a $14.50 hourly rate, will help assemble an updated list of housing units using mobile technology to ensure an “accurate and complete count” for the 2020 census.

Field supervisors, who start at a $16 hourly rate, will conduct field work to support and conduct on-the-job training for census takers and will follow up in situations where census takers have confronted issues, such as not gaining entry to restricted areas.

Bendz said he did not have an exact number on how many workers will be hired from Yakima County but hopes to amass a qualified pool for consideration.

“We are looking to recruit about 100 people in the county and get them in our database so we can select qualified candidates,” Bendz said. “Anyone interested in these jobs needs to apply now.”

To be eligible for the jobs, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old, has a valid Social Security number and email address, and can pass a background check. Applicants must be able to work flexible hours,  including days, weekends, and evenings, and have access to the internet to complete required training. A working vehicle and driver’s license also are required in many positions.

Length of employment for both positions is four to six weeks, Bendz said — adding that applicants who do well during their temporary work could be brought on to work for other census operations without needing to re-apply.

Training for those hired will start in the summer. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been edited to clarify the nature of the services provided by La Casa Hogar.