‘Be Counted – Trump Doesn’t Want You to Be’

April 24 panel on the 2020 Census. Left to right: Wendy Weiser, moderator, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, and Joseph Salvo, director of the Population Division of the NYC Department of City Planning. (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

By adding a citizenship question to the 2020 decennial Census, the Trump administration has fanned fear in immigrant communities across the nation, fear which is even manifesting itself in NYC, where Department of City Planning (DCP) staffers trying to verify and add to city address lists are “encountering pushback from people petrified of our presence,” said Joseph Salvo, DCP’s Population director.

But the politicization of the enumeration process has handed immigrant advocates a slogan they should seize on, said Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) president and general counsel Thomas Saenz.

“Donald Trump doesn’t want you counted, it’s time to be counted,” said Saenz, who along with Salvo and Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference and head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department from Oct. 15, 2014 to Jan. 20, 2017, spoke on a panel hosted April 24 by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School on Washington Square South. Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center, moderated.

Salvo said that the pushback was troubling, given that the DCP’s job is to ensure that there is no undercount of addresses, and hence of residents, that might aversely affect districting, funding and a host of other issues for years to come. “This is a true crisis we’re facing right now,” said Salvo. “Our biggest concern is allaying those fears and getting people to stand up and be counted.” It’s true that there have been undercounts in NYC in the past – notably the 1990 Census, which undercounted New Yorkers by about 244,000 residents, or 3 percent. But Salvo warned that it’s possible that “things could really be ugly,” with an undercount easily surpassing that number in 2020.  He said the failure to fill out a census survey could result in the eventual imputation by census algorithms of residents as well as demographic characteristics of residents, and that could lead to “all sorts of potential distortions,” said Salvo.

Title 13 of the United States code of law requires the Census Bureau to protect the confidentiality of information that is gathered during census-taking. The U.S. Constitution mandates that a full and complete count of every person living in the United States be taken every 10 years.

Saenz said that former U.S. presidents and attorneys general should pledge to “step in if there is any hint of a breach of confidentiality.” Trust in the integrity of the census and the enumeration process should be built, he said, through “outside monitors.”

“We need an all-hands-on-deck effort to protect it,” said Gupta. “The fight for a fair and accurate census is truly a fight for our democracy.” The census is being “weaponized for political purposes,” she said, noting that the citizenship question went “against the grain” for career staffers at the Census Bureau, as well as six former census directors.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March that the Census Bureau would add a question about citizenship to the census form, and in April, 18 state attorneys general, six cities, and the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors filed suit in U.S. Southern District Court to stop the inclusion of the question. Ross took his action at the instigation of the Justice Department, which argued that the question was necessary for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. However, both Saenz and Gupta noted that the American Community Survey, conducted between decennial counts, had done the job of providing all the information required for proper enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Salvo said DCP has visited 4,400 city blocks over the last two years which have been determined to be at risk of being omitted from the census because their addresses are not currently on Census Bureau address lists for NYC. Omission of these addresses could mean an undercount of “several hundred thousand New Yorkers.” When the city finishes the process of documenting additions to the address lists, it will present those to the census for inclusion. If the census does not accept the additions, the city will appeal. To help smooth the way as DCP visits neighborhoods around the city, a brochure, “Count NYC,”  has been printed in 10 languages with the simple message that only addresses are being confirmed by DCP, and that DCP staffers are not collecting any names or personal information.

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