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Trump memo boosts census fears among undocumented residents

A memo, signed by President Trump in mid-July, directs Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented residents from being used for reapportioning congressional seats.

A vehicle zooms through the Little Village neighborhood in June, horn blaring and lights flashing, to remind people to respond to the 2020 census.
A vehicle zooms through the Little Village neighborhood in June, horn blaring and lights flashing, to remind people to respond to the 2020 census. Local officials have been trying lots of things to encourage census participation and ensure a full count of all Chicago residents, but the response rate remains lower than they’d like.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

This past week, the census workers spent a day knocking on doors in Chicago and Cook County.

Thursday’s one-day test sets the stage for when door-knockers return in force, everywhere, starting Aug. 11.

The door-knocking stage usually is cause for celebration. It means the beginning of the end, as census workers start visiting addresses that had not yet responded online or by mail. It’s the last step to getting a full, complete count for the 2020 Census.

But a shadow was cast over the bureau in the last week because of a memorandum issued by President Donald Trump that attempts to prevent undocumented residents from being counted.

Trump’s memo directs Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented residents from being used for reapportioning congressional seats.

Maria Fitzsimmons, census director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said Trump’s memo is creating anxiety in Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods — areas already deemed hard-to-count.

The group has worked in the last week to ease fears, but it hasn’t been easy, with so many lingering misconceptions about the once-a-decade count, Fitzsimmons said.

The memo’s legality has been challenged by several lawsuits, including one joined by the city of Chicago, and it also raises questions about how the memo’s directive can be followed, since the Supreme Court already barred the Trump administration from including a citizenship question in the 2020 census form.

“There is no mechanism in place to even carry out what they want to do” without the citizenship question, said Fitzsimmons. “You have to count every person. Despite what this administration says, they are human beings and deserve to be counted.”

The Constitution requires a head count of the “whole number of persons in each state” every 10 years. Among other things, the tally is used to divide 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the 50 states. That, in turn, determines Electoral College votes.

Trump argues in his memo that the Constitution doesn’t define “whole number of persons” and undocumented people should be excluded as they are living “only temporarily in the United States.”

Fitzsimmons criticized that view, saying many undocumented persons have lived in the country for years and are raising families here.

Some households with undocumented residents have told Fitzsimmons filling out the census is not worth the risk of being deported.

“We have told our [U.S. Census Bureau] regional office that ICIRR is putting its reputation on the line and it better make sure it’s safe for all immigrants to fill it out,” Fitzsimmons said.

That regional census office declined to comment on how this memo would affect Chicago directly or if census takers are being trained differently when encountering people in heavily immigrant communities.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham is sworn in to testify Wednesday before a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the 2020 Census on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington.
U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham is sworn in to testify Wednesday before a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the 2020 Census.
Associated Press

Instead, it shared an official statement Steven Dillingham, the bureau’s national director, gave before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday about Trump’s memo.

“To be clear, this does not change the Census Bureau’s plans for field data collection across the nation,” Dillingham said at the hearing. “We will continue full steam ahead with our mission of counting every person, counting them once and counting them in the right place.”

But Dillingham stopped short of denouncing the memo and said the bureau is examining if a methodology for “producing a special tabulation for apportionment” can be made in determining who is undocumented.

During that same hearing, four former Census Bureau directors said Trump’s memo violated federal laws and was unconstitutional.

The memo puts heavily Latino and immigrant districts at risk of losing federal representation. Illinois is already projected to lose one congressional seat due to population loss.

If the memo is somehow implemented it almost guarantees the loss of two congressional seats, said U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, D-Ill.

“If the undocumented residents aren’t counted, we would lose a significant proportion of the population that is counted in the current 4th Congressional District,” Garcia said. “We haven’t calculated the number yet, but it has to amount to tens of thousands of people.”

It also would change the district boundaries and affect funding for day care, education programs in schools, health care and housing, Garcia said, adding: “The Latino community stands to lose the most in terms of resources and representation.”

Last week Garcia joined 24 members of Congress to prevent Trump from excluding undocumented immigrants from the census count. They introduced a bill that aims to nullify the order.

Garcia doesn’t believe the president’s order will be executed, but rather the memo is used to stoke fear around filling out the census.

“This is a radical, xenophobic, anti-immigrant proposal … to scare people and intimidate people into the shadows by suppressing census participation and disenfranchising people,” Garcia said.

The last day to complete the census is Sept. 30. Residents can fill out the census by mail, online at my2020census.gov, or by calling 844-330-2020.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.