BROWNSVILLE — Census surveyors already have a hard time getting undocumented immigrants to talk to them.
Now, a mix of current political rhetoric and a proposal to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census likely is making their jobs more difficult.
For instance, in a first for one Census Bureau field representative, an undocumented man actually walked out of his own apartment when the surveyor pressed the man to name his country of origin.
He just shut down, the surveyor reported, and walked out of his apartment, leaving the Census Bureau field representative alone inside.
That report is contained in a memorandum from the Center for Survey Measurement about respondent confidentiality concerns raised during pretesting studies conducted in 2017 for the 2020 Census, along with other surveys like the American Community Survey. The memorandum was sent Sept. 20 of last year.
Nearly two months later, Arthur E. Gary, general counsel for the Justice Management Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, sent a letter to Acting Census Director Ron Jarmin requesting that he include a citizenship question in 2020 Census questionnaire.
“The data is critical to the Department’s enforcement of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and its important protections against racial discrimination in voting,” Gary wrote. “To fully enforce those requirements, the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected.”
The census is conducted every 10 years, and data collected from it affects how congressional seats around the country are apportioned and how federal funding is allocated to state and local governments.
In communities with significant populations of undocumented immigrants, like in Brownsville and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley, that funding is crucial for federally funded programs. Historically, cities like Brownsville have been undercounted because of fears that information provided to Census survey takers will be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman, an assistant professor of political science who specializes in immigration and Latino politics at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said that even before Gary proffered up the idea of adding a citizenship question, concerns over respondent rates in minority communities were alarming.
“In general, people don’t want to be counted if they’re afraid the data is going to be used against them,” Gonzalez-Gorman said, adding that a climate of fear exists in immigrant communities because of the current political rhetoric.
For instance, on Thursday, President Donald Trump reportedly questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “(expletive) countries” in Africa during a bipartisan meeting with several Democratic and Republican lawmakers who were pitching an immigration reform agreement to the president, which the president shot down.
Reportedly, Trump also said he’d rather have European immigrants, specifically mentioning Norway. Trump has denied using a swear word.
Before that, Trump criticized a federal judge on Twitter who issued a temporary injunction against the administration’s plan to end President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that lets undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to remain without the fear of deportation.
And then there’s when then-candidate Trump described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” while on the campaign trail. Also, there’s the ever-looming border wall that Trump wants Mexico to pay for.
“The negative rhetoric and actions of the current administration created a situation where there’s little trust between immigrants and government,” Gonzalez-Gorman said.
The eight-page memorandum from the Center for Survey Measurement reflects that statement.
During focus groups held last July and September with Spanish-speaking Census Bureau field representatives, the surveyors described their challenges in counting people in immigrant communities.
“A third Spanish-speaking (field representative) added that she had observed Hispanic members of a household move out of a mobile home after she tried to interview them. She said, ‘There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic. I went to one and I left the information on the door. I could hear them inside. I did two more interviews, and when I came back, they were moving. … It’s because they were afraid of being deported,’” the memorandum states.
The focus group was sharing stories like this in order to figure out how to reduce the mistrust the public has toward survey takers.
Less than one month after Gary made the request, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former chief government enforcer of the Voting Rights Act, sent a letter to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur L. Ross, imploring Ross to reject the request. The Census Bureau is governed by the Department of Commerce.
Gupta said it’s too late in the game to add new questions to the survey because there’s not enough time to redesign the census form and rigorously test the proposed question. The administration has until April 2018 to submit proposed questions, but because of the long process of testing, the already budget-beleaguered Census Bureau would incur additional costs.
“Second, as I know from my prior experience as the chief government enforcer of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department has never needed to add this new question to the decennial census to enforce the Voting Rights Act before, so there is no reason it would need to do so now,” Gupta wrote.
Gupta formerly served as United States Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.
Dave Ray, communications director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, said the question must be included in the 2020 Census, but not because it would help combat Voting Rights Act violations.
“Illegal aliens, and where they live, have a significant impact on how the rest of us are governed. Legislative representation is a zero sum proposition as the number of seats in Congress and state legislatures remained fixed,” Ray said in a statement. “At least since the 1980 Census, the presence of large numbers of illegal aliens in some parts of the country has resulted in some states gaining political representation, while other states with fewer illegal aliens have lost seats.”
Not collecting this information is an act of willful blindness intended to deny the American public and lawmakers a complete picture of the impact immigration policies have on the country, according to Ray’s statement.
“The Supreme Court has ruled that illegal aliens may be counted for apportioning seats in legislative bodies,” Ray said. “Ruling against citizens in Texas who claimed that granting representation to illegal aliens who are ineligible to vote diluted their own franchise.”
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who represents a narrow strip of Texas with McAllen at its southernmost end and San Antonio to the north, wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, expressing his concern that the change was recommended under the guise of voter fraud prevention and ultimately would be detrimental to the 2020 Census.
“The reintroduction of this citizenship question is an indirect attack on our immigrant communities, and on historically undercounted communities like those in Hidalgo County,” Gonzalez wrote.
In September 2017, Gonzalez successfully lobbied the Census Bureau to open an Area Census Office in Hidalgo County in 2019 to ensure that people in the Rio Grande Valley are accurately counted in 2020. That’s a first for the Valley. In the past, Census workers relied on the regional office in San Antonio.
Texas Rep. Rene Oliveira, who represents parts of Brownsville and Cameron County in the state legislature, also was critical of the proposal.
“The question would be punitive to Latinos, and, if implemented, would likely face a major court challenge,” Oliveira said. “The census is used to count people, not determine the number of citizens present in a household. I fear that such a question could negatively impact census participation, which could result in a major loss of federal funding for the Rio Grande Valley.”
A citizenship question has not been included on the decennial census since 1950, UTRGV’s Gonzalez-Gorman said.
More so, survey takers with the American Community Survey, which is a Census Bureau ongoing survey that studies America’s changing population, housing and workforce, has included a citizenship question for 17 years.
“It’s already doing it. It’s already been in play,” Gonzalez-Gorman said. “That’s why there’s going to be a lot of pushback. Why are we doing something that’s been done every year by the American Community Survey?”
Gonzalez-Gorman thinks she has the answer to that question.
“It politicizes something that should not be politicized,” Gonzalez-Gorman said. “It politicizes census data. That’s typically been rather neutral, but now it’s politicized.”
Ross has yet to reveal if he’ll approve the DOJ’s request