Trump’s Immigration Stance Is Making the Census More Difficult Than Ever

  • Decennial count determines federal funds, congressional seats
  • Census Bureau needs money to boost efforts to reach immigrants

President Donald Trump’s tough immigration stance has made the monumental task of census takers more difficult and expensive than ever.

Millions of foreign-born residents are expected to hide from or avoid the 2020 count because of the political climate created by Trump, census staff and civil-rights groups say. Their reluctance to participate likely will worsen if Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department houses the Census Bureau, accepts Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ demand to include citizenship status in the survey for the first time. A decision is expected by March 31.

“If you put this in a questionnaire when there’s already fear in these communities, it will discourage legal as well as undocumented immigrants from participating,” said Joseph Salvo, the chief demographer in New York City, where about 40 percent of residents are foreign-born.

The count, constitutionally required every 10 years, determines how many House seats each state receives and how more than $600 billion in federal aid is distributed. Businesses large and small rely on data from the Census’s American Community Survey offshoot for market research.

Spending Constraints

Underfunding has compounded the bureau’s challenges. The 2020 Census will require $3.3 billion more than estimated in 2014 after a government review found that technological upgrades would be tougher to implement and save less money than previously thought, Ross told lawmakers in October.

“Given the time that remains, the tight budget and the difficulty in identifying hard-to-count households, they’ll be fortunate to pull off an accurate census,” Salvo said.

Getting an accurate census count among the nation’s immigrant population has long been a challenge because of language barriers, living in transient, often overcrowded quarters and in some cases, fear of deportation for those without documentation. Last year, census researchers found increased fear among respondents, particularly immigrants, who had concerns about confidentiality, and concerns about Trump’s ban on travel from Muslim counties and his call to end the Dreamers program that shields children of undocumented immigrants from deportation.

“Spanish-speakers brought up immigration raids, fear of government, and fear of deportation,” staff said in a September memo. “Respondents talked about having received advice not to open the door if they fear a visit from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

Deadline Near

The issue has gained momentum in the days leading to Ross’s deadline to add the citizenship question. On March 15, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter demanding answers from the Justice Department on what prompted the request for the question. On March 19, Trump’s re-election campaign sent a survey to its supporters asking whether they side with him on the issue.

Federal law guarantees that information derived from census surveys won’t be shared with any law enforcement agency or taxing authority. There’s no evidence that Trump’s administration intends to violate the protections. Still, even if the citizenship question isn’t included in the survey, census officials acknowledge that Trump’s presidency poses an unprecedented problem.

The problem isn’t limited to the densely populated immigrant and minority neighborhoods of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. One of the hardest-to-count is census tract 7233.05, about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, where 64 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent Native American. Only 9.7 percent of the tract’s 856 households mailed back their census questionnaires, requiring counters to roam its 511 square miles to document its population.

Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national civil rights group, said he’s most concerned about areas such as the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, where local officials may not spend enough money for outreach to minority populations -- even to the state’s detriment in terms of aid and representation in Washington. In Texas, 65 percent of the population growth that triggered new congressional districts in recent years was from Latinos, he said.

“The bureau isn’t doing enough to assure people that their information will be secure,” Saenz said.

Budget Battles

As preparation ramps up for the 2020 count, spending constraints have forced the bureau to reduce tests of online data collection and other technology that held the promise for long-term savings, said John Thompson, census director from August 2013 to May 2017.

More than $10.5 billion that’s needed in the next two years hasn’t been approved yet by a Congress torn by budget disputes, threats of government shutdowns and furloughs, Thompson said.

“We reached a point where we couldn’t afford to fully implement these operations, so we had to go back to paper-and-pencil techniques that cost more,” Thompson said.

Ross, at a March 14 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the $15.6 billion he requested over a 10-year period ending in 2023 was adequate and reflected an increase. To ensure that the “difficult to enumerate” part of the population is counted, the bureau intends to increase its local outreach staff and boost its marketing budget by a third, with materials published in 17 languages, Ross said.

Dodging Questions

As for the citizenship question, Census Bureau spokesman Michael Cook said a decision would follow “an orderly review.”

Local officials remained concerned. Nineteen attorneys general have pledged to fight Trump’s question, saying in a February statement that it would “punish states like New York that embrace and celebrate our diversity.”

A bipartisan group of 161 mayors, including Bill de Blasio of New York, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Sylvester Turner of Houston, have urged Ross in letters to reject the citizenship question and to seek more money. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel predicted 50,000 households would refuse to participate in a survey requiring citizenship status.

In Los Angeles, where undocumented immigrants are about 10 percent of its population, census director Maria Garcia said the city would work with community organizations to counter “a lot of fear and anxiety in the community in the political environment we’re in.”

Not Counted

New York’s Salvo intends to supervise volunteers to scour neighborhoods for new construction, multiple mailboxes in single-family homes and converted garages and basements. In 2000, he found the census bureau had missed 13 percent of the city’s 3 million-plus households; in 2010, it was 6 percent short.

A store displays wedding clothing and decorations on a commercial strip in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens.

Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

One of Salvo’s hardest-to-count neighborhoods, in South Richmond Hill, Queens, is a bastion of South Asian immigrants, where a computerized analysis reported that just 45 percent of households mailed back their 2010 census questionnaires.

Rajendar Persaud, 53, a Guyanese real estate agent from South Richmond Hill who’s been a U.S. citizen since 2006, says that although he returns his census form, he doubts his neighbors will participate.

Although the city claims to flood such neighborhoods with volunteers, leaflets and posters to assure privacy and encourage residents to fill out and mail back the forms, Persaud says he’s never seen one.

“Our people, they don’t know what it is, this census questionnaire,” he said. “They don’t understand its importance, and they would rather be left alone.”

— With assistance by Dimitrios Pogkas

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