Members of key minority communities are convinced that the government wants to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census in order to find and deport illegal immigrants, according to a Census Bureau report that shows the hurdles the administration faces.
Those concerns are unwarranted. The census is not designed to sniff out illegal immigrants, nor is it used to assess taxes or determine the unemployment rate. But that was news to a massive number of people, according to surveys and focus groups the Census Bureau conducted to try to figure out why people don’t respond.
Less than a third of people were able to correctly answer a battery of questions about what the census is meant to do: collect information for the purpose of redrawing congressional and legislative districts, and doling out tens of billions of dollars in federal assistance.
Only a little more than half of those surveyed knew that the census counts citizens and noncitizens alike, and 6 percent thought the count was used by the FBI to track lawbreakers.
“What people knew about the census was largely limited to the fact that it is used to determine changes in the U.S. population and that it has bearing on the number of congressional representatives each state will have,” the report concluded. “People incorrectly believed, or were uncertain, that the census is used to keep track of people who are in the country without documentation or those who have committed a crime.”
All told, more than 30 percent of households planned to skip the 2020 count, the bureau found.
That appeared to be a combination of apathy and active avoidance, both from those who distrust government in general and those who fear personal repercussions from taking part.
The findings were released as the Trump administration fights to add its question on citizenship to the 2020 count.
A federal judge in New York this month ordered the question deleted, saying the Commerce Department, which oversees the census, cut too many corners and ignored experts’ advice.
The judge calculated that about 5 percent of people would be frightened away from participating if a citizenship question is included.
The Trump administration has said it will appeal that ruling and ask the Supreme Court to take the case directly, skipping the usual path of an intermediate appeals court.
The report will likely be used against the administration.
According to focus group responses alongside the census survey, Spanish-speakers and women from the Middle East and North African were the most resistant to the citizenship question.
“I wouldn’t answer it because ICE is working with a lot of different groups on deportation sweeps and stuff, and I guess it would make me feel like I’m aiding in that,” one woman from the Middle East-North Africa focus group said.
Another woman went further: “Every single scrap of information that the government gets goes to every single intelligence agency; that’s how it works,” she said. “Like, the city government gets information and then the FBI and then the CIA and then ICE and military.”
The focus group moderators said the fear was palpable.
The fears are unfounded, the government says. The information is kept secret at the Census Bureau, and declaring noncitizenship does not mean eligibility for automatic deportation.
Yet a media frenzy surrounding the decision to include the question on the 2020 count has created a narrative that appears to have gained traction.
“Citizens reported what they believed would be the reaction of undocumented immigrants — namely, that they would either skip the question or ignore the form entirely. Many stated that they would not complete the census, despite being citizens themselves, if people in their household did not have U.S. citizenship,” the bureau said.
Immigrant communities were hypersensitive to the question, and those in nonimmigrant communities often weren’t even aware.
Some demographics, such as the focus group with those who identified as black or African-American, said they figured the census already asked about citizenship.
“I thought it was just a part of the census to ask citizenship. Everything else we fill out ask that same exact question, ‘Are you a citizen?’ So it’s just one more form with another common question,” one focus group member said.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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