© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Concerns Linger That Noncitizens Will Not Fill Out 2020 Census


Robert Mueller is not the only official facing questions before Congress today. Before a different committee, the head of the U.S. Census Bureau testifies. When the 2020 census count begins six months from now, there will not be a citizenship question on the census forms. But some worry that immigrants will still be too scared to fill them out. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The heart of one of the hardest-to-count neighborhoods in the country is in New York City...


WANG: ...Under the elevated train tracks of Jackson Heights, Queens.

YATZIRI TOVAR: I can eat Ecuadorian food, Mexican food, Colombian food.

WANG: All on this block.

TOVAR: All around this block, you know? You don't have to walk that far. It just reflects how diverse this part of Queens is.

WANG: Yatziri Tovar is a spokesperson for Make the Road New York. The immigrant rights group operates out of a glass storefront on this block. Two signs taped to the window say, ICE out, warning Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers they cannot enter without a warrant signed by a judge.

TOVAR: We're walking into Make the Road New York and...

WANG: This organization was one of the dozens of groups that successfully sued the Trump administration to block plans for a citizenship question.

TOVAR: It's so important that our community knows that we won. The citizenship question will not be added to the 2020 census. And now it's time to get to work to make sure everyone participates in the census.

WANG: Counting every person living in the U.S. is a way to make sure everyone gets their fair share over the next decade. Those numbers determine how congressional seats and Electoral College votes are divided up and how voting districts are redrawn. They also guide how around $900 billion a year in federal tax dollars are distributed for schools, roads and other public services. But Yatziri Tovar is worried that stepped-up immigration enforcement by the Trump administration could leave the count coming up short.

TOVAR: 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.

WANG: 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. And federal law prohibits the Bureau from releasing information identifying individuals to the public and other federal agencies, including ICE, until 72 years after the information is collected. Still, Tovar says stakes are high right now for many families like her own. She came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2. And for now, she's protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Her two younger brothers are U.S. citizens.

TOVAR: But because of their color of their skin and because we have family members who are undocumented, I have had to, you know, have that hard conversation with them, saying, look, these are your rights. And be aware. Don't open the door.


WANG: Back outside near Make the Road New York, Julia Baidal is selling beauty products next to other street vendors. She says she's noticed fewer people out shopping when ICE raids were expected earlier this month.

No business.


WANG: Because people may be afraid...


WANG: ...To go outside.

BAIDAL: Yeah. Yes, that's right.

WANG: Baidal says she plans to fill out the census.

BAIDAL: It's very important for the people here. I live in this country. Maybe I will receive benefit or something like that.

WANG: But she says some of her friends who are undocumented may not be as comfortable. That's a challenge the Census Bureau is trying to take on. During a Senate hearing last week, the Census Bureau's director, Steven Dillingham, said the Bureau is preparing an advertising campaign designed to, quote, "resonate with diverse communities." He also tried to find a silver lining in the controversy over the now-blocked citizenship question.


STEVEN DILLINGHAM: Some people would speculate that even the attention that may be considered attention of disagreements on the census could in fact become beneficial because people know now that the census is very important, and they will engage in helping us reach everyone.

WANG: The most effective outreach for the census in the past has come from local community groups like Make the Road New York. The group's deputy director, Theo Oshiro, says they'll try their best to overcome the little trust many immigrant communities have in the Trump administration.

THEO OSHIRO: It's definitely a tricky maneuver that we'll have to pull off as supporters of immigrant communities. While we will strive for 100% participation in our communities, we know that historically it has been virtually impossible to get 100% participation.

WANG: Next year, it will be up to each household to decide whether or not to fill out the census. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITE'S "ONE LAST MILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.