Labor, community activists push back against U.S. Census citizenship question

A group of local community activists, labor and legal advocacy leaders sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross urging him to reject a proposal from the Department of Justice that would change the U.S. Census.

The change? Adding a question about citizenship status to the upcoming 2020 census. The aforementioned groups, along with civil rights and immigrant rights organizations, are afraid this action could reduce participation in the census because of community fear.

“If you and your staff are sincere in the desire you have expressed to ensure an accurate and complete count of all New Yorkers and Americans, then you must ensure that the census process does not become a tool for intimidating and punishing immigrant communities,” read part of the letter. “Since the 18th century, the census has been clear that all people residing in this country—citizen and non-citizen alike—should be counted. Adding a citizenship question would undoubtedly reduce response rates in diverse communities across New York and the country, as it will increase fears about whether or not the information will be confidential and how it will be used.”

The letter continued, “This late, ill-considered revision would produce a devastating chilling effect in our communities. Moreover, this is not just a concern in immigrant communities—it will jeopardize a full, fair count in all communities, and especially communities of color.”

The letter also states that accepting the DOJ’s request would be at odds with research and add costs to a census process that is already underfunded. One member of congress expounded on this idea.

“Efforts to discourage immigrant participation in the census are immoral and outrageous,” said Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez in a statement. “For the census to be an effective tool in helping policymakers, it needs to accurately reflect the diversity of our nation. There’s no credible reason for including a citizenship question and the Commerce Department should reject this shameful proposal outright.”

“Yet again we see the Trump administration trying to silence, intimidate and literally erase immigrant communities,” added 32BJ President Hector Figueroa in a statement. “The Justice Department’s proposed change to the census will keep immigrants from participating. That isn’t just bad for immigrants but bad for our country.”

When asked for the next steps that activists will take after the letter’s release, a representative for Make the Road New York said that the fight is never-ending.

“The dozens of community, labor and legal advocacy organizations who wrote to Secretary Ross regarding the DOJ’s preposterous census proposal are in this fight for the long haul,” said Make the Road New York representative Yatziri Tovar. “We are now poised to educate our members and intensifying public pressure. We are also engaging our elected officials to ensure the strongest possible chorus against this reckless proposal and to demand a full, fair and accurate 2020 census.”

With the allocation of money to regions, cities and towns determined by the census, an undercount could hurt communities of working-class people, immigrants and people of color.

Although President Donald Trump’s administration might want the citizenship question on the census, they don’t want to adjust categories in regards to race and ethnicity. In January, census officials announced via memo that race and ethnicity questions would follow a two-question format adhering to the Office of Management and Budget’s 1997 Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity. The census won’t include a combined questions format for obtaining data on Hispanic origin and race and/or a separate Middle Eastern/North African category (these recommendations were made by former president Barack Obama’s administration).

Tovar believes they’ll be successful pushing back against Trump’s agenda.

“Immigrants, people of color, and allies have led unprecedented resistance efforts over the past year in pushing back against Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant agenda, which only aims to make America whiter,” said Tovar. “While the Trump Administration targets immigrant and communities of color, we have seen undocumented youth and families standing up and speaking out and demanding justice. As the Trump administration continues escalating its attacks on our communities, we will increase the intensity of our resistance in the streets, Congress and the courts.”