Trump loses big on census, but the damage is done

People still will worry that completing a census form will lead to their deportation. It will be a no-brainer to ignore the form.

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This March 23, 2018, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2018 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident.

Even if President Trump fails to get a citizenship question on the 2020 Census questionnaire, he will have succeeded in discouraging many immigrants from filling out the form, writes Marlen Garcia.

AP Photos

President Donald Trump on Thursday ditched an attempt to put a citizenship question on the short form of the 2020 census, but the chilling effect is sure to linger.

Trump may have succeeded in scaring off millions of immigrants from filling out the form. That’s terrible for Illinois, a state with about 1.78 million foreign-born people.

“The damage has been done,” Katya Nuques, of the nonprofit Enlace Chicago, told me. The community group is based in Little Village, a Southwest Side neighborhood that is predominantly Mexican American.

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Enlace and other nonprofit groups across Illinois will work hard to convince immigrants to fill out the form. They’ll explain that their congressional representation, their voice in government, is at stake. Distribution of federal funding is also allocated by the census count, they will tell people.

It’s tough to get the message out there “when people are worried about basic safety,” Nuques said.

Census outreach groups, along with Census Bureau staffers, will be up against years of Trump trashing immigrants and siding with the nationalists and white supremacists who long to see a whiter America. They will be up against a president viewed as ruthless by many immigrants and Americans alike.

As I write this, the Trump administration is preparing to arrest and deport thousands of undocumented immigrants in cities across the U.S. this weekend.

American citizens whose parents are undocumented no doubt will be caught in the roundups. It is expected that immigrants who aren’t targets for deportation will end up in detention. They’ll all be collateral damage.

When the time comes to fill out the census form, immigrants will remember the raids; the administration’s fight to include a question about citizenship on the census short form; the Muslim ban and other proposals to limit legal immigration and asylum cases; plus all that nasty rhetoric.

People will think hard about whether it’s a good idea to be counted. They will worry that completing a census form eventually could lead to their deportation. To many, it will be a no-brainer to ignore the form.

Grassroots outreach groups promoting census participation will tell reluctant people that by law, the Census Bureau is required to keep people’s information private. Employees sign affidavits swearing lifetime oaths for this. The U.S. government says personally identifiable information will not be made public for 72 years after the decennial census.

Many people won’t believe it.

“There has been so much fear and misinformation about what the census is going to be used for, people are unsure,” Jane Lombardi, of the nonprofit Erie Neighborhood House, told me.

Lombardi, director of immigration, health and leadership for the group, has heard concerns from undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens. Many of these people are heads of households. They are responsible for filling out census forms for their families, including children who are citizens. If the head of household passes on the census, the entire family takes a pass.

Instead of asking the citizenship question on the short form of the census, Trump will issue an executive order to have various federal government agencies provide the data.

“The Census Bureau can use this information along with information collected through the questionnaire to create the official census,” Trump said Thursday.

He also gave away why a citizen count is so important.

Some states may want to draw state and local legislative districts based upon the voter eligible population,” Trump said, referring to an effort by Republicans to exclude non-citizens and children when they draw state legislative maps.

America keeps growing more and more diverse, you see. Too many Republicans want only white Americans to have a voice.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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