Activists Blocked Census Citizenship Question. Now They Have To Repair Trump's Damage.

Activists fear the 2020 census has been tainted by the Trump administration’s aggressive attempt to add a question on citizenship — but they’re not backing down without a fight.

There won’t be a citizenship question on the 2020 census, but activists and officials say President Donald Trump’s administration may have done lasting damage to the survey nonetheless in deterring immigrants and people of color from participating.

Trump decided last week to allow the census to proceed without a question about whether respondents are U.S. citizens, after the Supreme Court said his administration hadn’t properly justified adding the question. The Trump administration claimed it needed the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court said that rationale seemed to be “contrived.”

But the year-and-a-half-long push by his administration to include a question on citizenship ― something experts say would give more power to Republicans and white people ― plus incessant anti-immigration rhetoric coming from the White House has created a toxic mix of fear and confusion for immigrants around the census, advocates say. An inaccurate count would have devastating consequences because the survey is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds each year and to draw congressional seats.

Now, armed with a significant legal victory from the Supreme Court, organizations focused on getting hard-to-count populations to fill out the survey are figuring out how they can convince immigrant communities to respond to the survey. Individual census responses must be kept confidential, according to federal law, but advocates readily acknowledge that convincing immigrants they should fill out the questionnaire in the current climate will be difficult.

Civil rights groups have said since the beginning of the citizenship question controversy that the Trump administration wanted to use the census to intimidate immigrants and suppress minority political power. Documents from a now-deceased redistricting guru lent support to that claim. The lingering fear and uncertainty could allow the Trump administration to do that, even though a citizenship question won’t be on the census.

“No doubt damage has been done,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund. “The kind of debate that was surrounding the whole controversy of whether or not to add a citizenship question, not only did [it] raise awareness that there will be a census next year, but also raised anxiety about whether or not you should participate in the census next year.”

“No doubt damage has been done.”

- Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO Educational Fund

A Census Bureau study released earlier this year found ”very strong concernsabout the citizenship question and said distrust in government, privacy and confidentiality concerns, as well as fear answers would be used against people, were major barriers to filling out the survey. When the Census Bureau conducted a full test of the census in Providence County, Rhode Island, last year, the survey didn’t include a citizenship question. Nonetheless, some people were afraid to respond to the test out of fear it could jeopardize their immigration status, according to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

While experts are concerned the controversy surrounding the citizenship question will have lingering effects on the count, despite not appearing on the form, the Supreme Court’s decision will serve as a “starting point” for organizations to convince everyone to participate in the census count, said Sarah Brannon, the managing attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, which represented some of the plaintiffs challenging the question.

“We have hope that there is at least now a place to start from and that a lot of work can be done hopefully to diminish that impact,” Brannon said.

One way groups think they can get people to respond is by emphasizing the connection between census data and obtaining resources for a community. Some of NALEO’s message testing from last year showed emphasizing the benefits of the census was one of the most effective ways to get people to respond, Vargas said.

Advocates and officials will also depend heavily on local and community groups to build trust around the census.

While experts fear the damage is already done on the census, after the Trump administration's failed but fierce push to put a question on citizenship on the form, activists are gearing up their messaging and outreach efforts.
While experts fear the damage is already done on the census, after the Trump administration's failed but fierce push to put a question on citizenship on the form, activists are gearing up their messaging and outreach efforts.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a community union in the Rio Grande Valley that filed one of the suits against the Department of Commerce, plans to reach out to the local immigrant community to find out what individuals need to know to ease their fears, according to Martha Sanchez, its community organizing coordinator. The union’s extensive outreach efforts will also spread information about the benefits of filling out the census, through canvassing and public forums incorporating games like bingo.

Sanchez expects it to be difficult “to erase all the damage that [Trump] has done.” But she hopes LUPE will be able to message more effectively because it’s trusted by community members who “see us every day in the trenches.”

In places with high immigrant populations, a lot is riding on the success of these programs. Texas has yet to spend state money or make plans for the 2020 census, according to NPR. It has failed to establish a statewide complete count commission for the census, which means city and local officials, as well as nonprofit groups, may have to step up to fill the void left by the state.

In New York City, officials plan to tailor messaging to different immigrant communities as part of a $40 million push, said Amit Bagga, deputy director of the city’s census effort.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) represents portions of Manhattan and the Bronx, which have large immigrant populations, and told HuffPost he’s still “optimistic that we’ll get a good count.” He highlighted outreach efforts including “folks knocking on doors” who will be hired from within the community and messaging through local media.

“Some people feel the damage has already been done, but I think we will overcome that by the kind of operations we’ll have out there to make sure that on the ground we have the infrastructure and the mechanisms to get the forms filled out,” Espaillat said.

President Donald Trump said last week he would drop an effort to get a citizenship question on the census.
President Donald Trump said last week he would drop an effort to get a citizenship question on the census.
China News Service via Getty Images

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) allocated $187 million for census outreach efforts, a number inspired in part by the challenge posed by the citizenship question controversy, his office said.

“It’s going to be through those trusted messengers that we’re going to be able to reach folks with the information that they need so that they know how to participate,” said Maricela Rodriguez, the director of civic engagement and strategic partnerships in Newsom’s office.

In Illinois, Deputy Gov. Sol Flores said officials were working to create an overall climate to make immigrants feel more comfortable responding to the census. She noted the state had banned local law enforcement from engaging with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, blocked for-profit immigrant detention centers, and expanded access to college assistance programs for undocumented students.

“We’re not just lip service on [the] census,” she said.

Whiplash in messaging from the White House has also contributed to a chilling effect, organizers say. After the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration, government lawyers said the census would be printed without a citizenship question, but then Trump said he would push ahead and try to add one. Trump ultimately conceded last week that it was too late to add the question.

“Just within the span of a one-week timeline, we’ve seen the federal government sway so many times like a pendulum on their position,” said Wennie Chin, senior manager for civil engagement at the New York Immigration Coalition. “Now we have to go back into the community and educate them and clear up any misunderstandings and break down any myths that may have come up during that time period.”

The controversy over the citizenship question also forced groups to expend resources that they could have used to get people to respond to the census, said John Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

“Typically, during this period of time we would have been mobilizing to educate the community,” Yang said. “We have had to spend that time and those resources, that staffing power, to fight back against this question. Because we knew if that question was on the census, our efforts would be that much harder.”

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