As the legal battle over whether to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census intensifies, Chicago-area advocates say the debate has brought fear and mistrust among immigrants.
And that fear may be so strong that many immigrants will not participate in the census regardless of whether the 2020 census includes a citizenship question.
“There’s justifiable concerns that if a citizenship question is included in the census that the information could be used to identify noncitizens and potentially could be used for immigration enforcement,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Tsao said that while there are rules that would prevent something like that from happening, the fear and mistrust of government agencies will impact participation rates.
Part of the reason why the concerns are justifiable is because the census has shared information with other government agencies in the past. That history is especially painful for Brandon Lee with the immigrant advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
“Back during World War II, it was the census information that the government used to round up the Japanese-Americans in the West Coast, including my grandparents, and send them to internment camps,” Lee said.
Fears are also high because of the Trump administration’s track record of strong language about undocumented immigrants. Sylvia Puente, executive director for the Latino Policy Forum, said immigrant communities are taking the Trump administration’s pursuit of a citizenship question as one more anti-immigrant effort.
“All of that has created a significant amount of fear in Latino and other immigrant communities around the country,” she said.
Still, Puente said organizations will be encouraging immigrants to push past those fears and participate in the census because there’s a lot at stake. An undercount could result in the loss of a congressional seat and federal funding.
“We have this paradox that the damage has been done and people are fearful and staying home and not shopping as much and being really cautious about going out,” Puente said. “And at the same time, when the census goes out, we’re going to be asking people to complete their census.”
Last Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. Furman said the decision to include the citizenship question violated the law. The Trump administration quickly filed an appeal.
In his 277-page opinion, Furman said including the question would cause “hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people” to go uncounted. The judge blamed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross arguing that he “failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices."
There are similar lawsuits in other states trying to block the question, including one in Maryland scheduled to go to trial this week. The Supreme Court is expected to tackle the issue as early as February.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.