With the legal fight to block a citizenship question from the 2020 census behind them, immigrant rights groups and other advocates are now turning toward what they consider an even greater challenge — getting every person living in the U.S. counted.
Activists are trying to soften ground hardened by a more than yearlong legal battle by using community meetings and street outreach in these final months before the constitutionally mandated head count of U.S. residents begins. The census is set to officially begin in January in remote Alaska before rolling out to the rest of the country by April.
"It's time to get to work to make sure everyone participates in the census," says Yatziri Tovar, a spokesperson for Make the Road New York — an immigrant rights organization based in New York City that was one of the dozens of groups that successfully sued the Trump administration.
Census Bureau researchers estimated that including a citizenship question likely would have deterred at least 9 million people, especially among Latinx communities, from taking part in the head count. Instead, the administration is relying on a way to get a detailed count of U.S. citizens and noncitizens that's based on government records the Census Bureau was directed last year to start compiling from other federal agencies.
"It's important that people know that we depend on the census for our resources, for our representation, for our voices to be heard and to be counted," Tovar says.
The census results have implications on political representation and federal funding over the next decade. The new population numbers are set to determine how congressional seats and Electoral College votes are divided up among the states, as well as how voting districts are redrawn. The information also guides how an estimated $880 billion a year in federal tax dollars is distributed for schools, Medicaid and other public services.
But groups like Make the Road New York worry that the 2020 count could come up short. Stepped-up immigration enforcement and growing anti-immigrant rhetoric have raised the stakes for many families, including Tovar's, who are trying to avoid even the possibility of interacting with immigration officials.
"It is hard when these possible raids are happening and then also we want our folks to open the door so that they can fill out the census," says Tovar, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2 years old and, for now, is protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The Census Bureau hopes that most households will fill out the census online, on paper or by phone before the bureau starts sending out workers to knock on doors. Under federal law, the bureau cannot share census responses that identify individuals with the public or other federal agencies — including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — until 72 years after the information is collected.
But distrust of the government can undermine efforts to encourage households to participate in the census, the bureau's own focus group research has found.
"Even when presented with the Census Bureau's promise of confidentiality, participants were suspicious that the promise would not be kept," researchers wrote about their findings from Spanish-speaking focus group from the U.S. mainland. "Participants believed that the government will use and share individual-level rather than aggregate-level data."
During a hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said the bureau is trying to address that public distrust with an advertising campaign designed to "resonate with diverse communities."
Dillingham also tried to find a silver lining in the controversy over the now-blocked citizenship question.
"Some people would speculate that even the attention that may be considered attention of disagreements on the census could, in fact, become beneficial," the bureau's director told the committee's senators, "because people know now that the census is very important and they will engage in helping us reach everyone."
The public outreach plan relies heavily on more than 1,500 partnership specialists the bureau was planning to bring on board by the end of June. Stationed around the country, these outreach workers are tasked with working with local organizations to encourage census participation among immigrants, communities of color and other groups the bureau considers hard to count.
The Government Accountability Office has found, however, that the bureau is two months behind its hiring schedule because of delays in processing background checks. In an email, the Census Bureau tells NPR that as of late June, fewer than half of the more than 1,600 people who have accepted jobs as partnership specialists started working.
Some of the most effective outreach efforts for the census in the past have come directly from local community groups such as Make the Road New York. The organization's deputy director, Theo Oshiro, says they'll try their best to overcome the mistrust many immigrant communities have in the Trump administration.
"It's definitely a tricky maneuver that we'll have to pull off as supporters of immigrant communities," Oshiro says. "While we will strive for 100% participation in our communities, we know that historically, it has been virtually impossible to get 100% participation."
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