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Pritzker details census battle plan, warning ‘billions of dollars in federal funding are on the line’

With the state losing population, and a potential citizenship question that could scare off immigrant communities, Illinois stands to lose U.S. House seats and about $120 million a year if just a 1% drop is recorded.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs an executive order to ramp up efforts ahead of the 2020 Census count.
Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday signed an executive order to ramp up efforts ahead of the 2020 census — warning that “the stakes could not be higher” in Illinois, with a big risk the state will lose a congressional seat and millions in federal funding.

The executive order establishes a Census Office and a panel to guide the work. There is $29 million dedicated to the census effort in this year’s budget, which Pritzker signed earlier this month. The new office will conduct outreach and handle the grants to community groups to educate the public on the importance of an accurate count.

With the state once again losing population, and a potential citizenship question that may scare off immigrant communities, Illinois stands to lose at least one congressional seat and about $120 million a year if just a 1% drop is recorded, Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton warned, standing next to elected officials and advocates for immigrant and minority communities.

With census questions to be printed next month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on whether to uphold three lower courts’ rulings challenging a citizenship question championed by the Trump administration. And a federal judge in Maryland this week said he’d take another look at whether having the question on the census equates to discrimination against minorities.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year requested that the U.S. Census Bureau ask all households about citizenship. But the exact phrasing of the question has not been detailed.

“This is an enormous undertaking that could have dramatic implications for our state,” Pritzker said at the executive order signing at the Garfield Park Conservatory. “Our representation in the United States House of Representatives is on the line. Illinois has lost six Congressional seats since 1960, and there are experts that predict we could lose one or two after the 2020 census. We need to work as hard as we can to get an accurate count so Illinois can get the representation that we deserve.”

Illinois currently has 18 congressional seats — 13 held by Democrats and five by Republicans. In 2001, when Democrats redrew the maps following the census, one Republican congressional seat was lost.

And a decade later, when the state lost another of its congressional seats due to the 2010 census, federal judges described the Democratic controlled redistricting as ”a blatant political move to increase the number of Democratic congressional seats.”

Illinois had 25 congressional seats in the 1930s, but the state has lost seven since then, an average loss of a seat a decade since the 1940s.

“Billions of dollars in federal funding are on the line,” Pritzker said. “The stakes could not be higher and to be frank, we’re behind in Illinois.”

Pritzker blamed former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner for failing to prioritize the census count, while also blaming President Donald Trump’s administration for “doing everything in its power to ensure an undercount.”

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner, left, and President Donald Trump, right.
Former Gov. Bruce Rauner, left, and President Donald Trump, right.
File photos.

“It’s a multi-pronged approach that they’re taking to slash funding and to force communities into the shadows. I’m talking about the citizenship question that exists only to stoke fear in our immigrant communities,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker said the state and advocates standing with him in opposition to Trump “will not let him win.”

“Now and always Illinois will be a welcoming system for all of the people,” Pritzker said. “We will not allow the census to be used as a weapon against us. Instead we will protect every resident of Illinois, every resident, and ensure a comprehensive and bipartisan process to get an accurate count.”

Asked how the state could build trust with immigrant communities in light of the national political climate, Pritzker said “they should feel safe” in Illinois, a place where the undocumented are protected by several laws, he said.

“Whether or not this is allowed, we are going to be working forefront, all of the various organizations that are standing behind me, the members of the coalitions, all are going to speak one-on-one with people to make sure they know it’s safe to work with us,” Pritzker said.