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Springfield politicians urge residents to participate in 2020 census amid wrangling over citizenship question

July 8, 2019
In The News

SPRINGFIELD — A sense of urgency was evident among local politicians at a briefing on the 2020 census at Springfield City Hall on Monday.

Conducted every ten years, the census has become a point of contention as the Trump administration attempts to add a question about individuals’ citizenship status. Census Bureau experts and critics of the question say it would discourage people in the U.S. illegally from responding, including large numbers of migrants from Central America.

The citizenship question was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision, but the Department of Justice is reportedly pushing ahead with plans to include it on census forms.

At Monday’s briefing, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, noted the importance of counting each person living in the city, saying failing to account for everyone can cause a national ripple effect.

“Twenty years ago, we lost a congressional seat to the state of Washington based upon the need for 35,000 more people,” said Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “My hunch is that in Hampden County you could probably find 35,000 more people. I talked to (Massachusetts Secretary of State) Bill Galvin … and he has indicated to me that counting the people who are underrepresented and underserved is really important.”

“And I suspect that 20,000, if not more of those, were Puerto Rican, Latinos, people that speak a different language, immigrants,” said state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, chairman of the Black and Latino Caucus. “And I’m gonna say this: I’m mad as hell. Because we, members of our community, need to step up and make sure we get our people counted.”

Although Massachusetts is not at risk of losing a seat this time around, Neal said that an accurate count is necessary so that the state does not continue a downward population trend in future censuses. He emphasized the need to keep up with the population growth of other parts of the country to maintain steady national representation for Massachusetts.

Springfield needs “a full head count of who lives here, and we want to make sure that those who might be disinclined or might be afraid need to be counted as well,” Neal said.

According to Jeff Behler, director of the U.S. Census Bureau’s New York Regional Office, over $675 billion in federal funding is disseminated every year based upon formulas using census data.

“We’re talking about infrastructure, your roads, your schools, health care, Medicaid, national school lunch program,” Behler said. “Anything that touches individuals in your community, I guarantee you it’s tied to funding that uses census data.”

Mayor Domenic Sarno said Springfield’s population hovers between 153,000 and 155,000 people. “If we were to go below the 150,000 mark, that would be devastating when it comes to funding, specifically CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding, which is a lifeline,” he said.

CDBG funding may go toward affordable housing, real estate acquisition, rehabilitation of buildings, and construction and improvements to public facilities such as sewer systems and sidewalks.

“We want to make sure that our voices are heard in Washington, because if they’re not heard, there will be other people making decisions for the city of Springfield,” Sarno said.

Other states are likely to gain new members in Congress because of the upcoming census, said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru. Mark is also the chairman of the House Committee on Redistricting. He explained how three new members will go to Texas, two will go to Florida, and one will go to North Carolina — all southern states.

“Meanwhile, New York state is going to lose one,” Mark said. “Rhode Island is probably going to lose one. That dilutes our voice. It dilutes the number of people fighting for us in Washington and Boston, but it also affects the Electoral College. It affects so many different things.”

Since the 2010 census, Springfield has changed in many ways, Election Commissioner Gladys Oyola-Lopez said. She said the upcoming census is important because it determines funding, and that funding must account for changes in the city’s landscape.

“This is where the rubber meets the road,” she said. “In that census count, there was no gas explosion. There was no tornado. We didn't have MGM. We didn't have all the construction that we have now.”

In addition to a paper form, this year’s census will introduce two alternatives: people will be able to answer questions online or call in their information. Twelve languages other than English will be offered by operators.

Behler also emphasized that information shared with census takers is secure.

“We cannot release any information at any time that identifies an individual or a household. Period,” he said. “Local, state and federal law enforcement cannot access our data. Homeland Security and immigration services cannot access our data. The Patriot Act does not superseded Article 13. We take this seriously.”

Behler went on to explain that any employee that releases information of an individual or household could face up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

The Census Bureau recently created a plan to account for as many citizens as possible in cities such as Springfield, Behler said. Census packages will be mailed out in March 2020 to all households, and April 1 is census day. Beginning in mid-May, a team of community members will go door to door, asking those who have not filled out the census to fill it out. The census count goes until July, so Behler urged people to turn in census forms before they have to knock on their door.

“Start the census conversation now,” Behler said. “At your church, at your work, at dinner with your friends and family. Talk about how the census is safe, that the census is easy, that it is important.”