Amid crackdown, advocates for immigrants say citizenship question will spook census-takers

Amid crackdown, advocates for immigrants say citizenship question will spook census-takers


Originally published by The Washington Post

When the 2020 Census lands in Langley Park and asks residents whether they are U.S. citizens, the response is likely to be no — if residents respond at all.

“I wouldn’t answer it,” said a 42-year-old undocumented construction worker from Guatemala.

“Nobody is going to do this. Nobody,” said a jewelry saleswoman from El Salvador.

In this Maryland enclave less than 10 miles from the White House, 58 percent of residents are not U.S. citizens, the highest percentage of any city, town or unincorporated community in the United States. The number of noncitizen adults is even higher: Nearly 80 percent of the men and two-thirds of the women in Langley Park cannot vote for president, qualify for federal financial aid or apply for a U.S. government job.

Many are undocumented and afraid of federal immigration agents, community leaders say. Now, they are also afraid of the census.

The Trump administration announced last month that it will add a citizenship question to the decennial census for the first time since 1950, a change that federal officials say will result in a more accurate understanding of the U.S. population and better enforcement of minority voting rights. The question will ask whether residents are U.S. citizens, not whether they are in the country legally.

The decision to include the question has generated alarm in ethnic media and in states where many noncitizens live. Even though it is illegal for the Census Bureau to share information with other federal agencies, immigrants’ advocates say some fear the question — coming as President Trump has vowed to aggressively enforce immigration laws — will be used to find and deport them. If those immigrants therefore refuse to fill out the census survey, it could trigger an undercount that would deprive jurisdictions — including those that voted for Trump — of a share of political power and federal funds for roads, bridges and schools.

“I think that a lot of people in my district will be very fearful. They’re already fearful,” said Prince George’s County Council member Deni Taveras (D-District 2), who represents Langley Park. “We’re going to be suffering for it.”

Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa, a nonprofit group operating in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, said immigrants and their advocates are worried that federal officials “are going to use [census] information to attack and to destroy our families.”

The census is sent to every household once a decade to provide Congress with an official count of every U.S. resident. It is supposed to be a more thorough measure than the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which is based on a population sample of more than 3 million households a year. About 22 million noncitizens are living in the United States, according to the community survey, which asks about citizenship. Researchers estimate that about half — 11 million — are undocumented.

La Union Mall in Langley Park, a suburb of Washington that has the highest percentage of noncitizens in the United States. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Census data is used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives, draw state legislative districts and delineate school districts. It is also the baseline used to divide up some $675 billion in federal funding for education, infrastructure, health care and other services.

By the time the 2020 Census launches, Trump’s immigration enforcement should be at full throttle. Temporary protections for Salvadorans and Haitians are scheduled to end in 2019 and — depending on court battles — could also be phased out for 690,000 young immigrants, known as “dreamers,” brought to this country as children.

“If immigrants are spooked,” they won’t answer the census, said Mesa Mayor John Giles (R). “The irony of that is regardless of where you’re at on the political spectrum, this is going to hurt you as well.”

Mayor Lydia Mihalik of Findlay, Ohio, a Republican who voted for Trump, said she hopes the administration will not ask about citizenship, because of fears that it will lead to an inaccurate count.

“From my perspective, the less amount of politics that goes into the gathering of this data the better,” Mihalik said. “There are a lot of things the census is used for.”

Few communities have as much at stake in the citizenship question as Langley Park, a densely populated community of about 20,000, wedged between Takoma Park and College Park, where immigrants have long felt at home.

Spanish is more common than English. Shops stock farmer cheese from El Salvador, cold medicine from Guatemala and push-up jeans from Colombia. Most parents carry passports from Latin American countries, while most of their children are U.S.-born citizens.

But under Trump, many say they now live in fear of federal immigration agents — “la migra” — and have no interest in reminding Uncle Sam through the census that they are not citizens.

“You feel like animals in the woods. You don’t know when they’re going to hunt for you,” said the 42-year-old construction worker from Guatemala, who gave his name only as William. He and others refused to give their full names, because they are undocumented or have temporary legal status that will expire in 2019.

William filled out the census in 2010 but said he will not risk it in 2020. He recently moved to a different apartment building with his wife and four children — two of them citizens because they were born in the United States — because immigration agents had arrested a neighbor in his old building. William feared they would return for him.

Inside the building where the family lives now, nobody has posted their names on the mailboxes. Some neighbors refused to answer the door recently, though voices could be heard inside.

At an apartment with a welcome mat, a 29-year-old undocumented construction worker from Honduras cracked open the door. Asked whether he would fill out the census if it had a citizenship question, he shook his head.

“No,” said the man, who has a wife and a new baby, “not while we’re in this critical situation.”

Federal officials say the census would not be used to target undocumented immigrants, because it is illegal for the Census Bureau to share respondents’ answers with anyone, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Anyone who does share such information can be sentenced to up to five years in prison and fined up to $250,000.

But such disclosures have happened before, including during World War II, when the census was secretly used to find and round up thousands of Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps.

Refusing to answer the census is also illegal, though census officials say they are unaware of anyone being prosecuted on those grounds. Adults can be fined up to $100 for refusing to answer and up to $500 for giving false information.

Census enumerators will attempt to follow up with residents who do not fill out the 2020 forms, which for the first time may be answered online as well as through the mail.

Some immigrants who are American citizens say the addition of the question to the census is no big deal.

“If they’re a citizen, it won’t bother them,” said Yolanda Brewster, a 65-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Guatemala who voted for Trump and runs a shop at a mall in the heart of Langley Park.

But others note that many undocumented immigrants are ineligible to apply for citizenship. “Most of those who don’t have papers are not going to answer it, because of fear,” said Lourdes Rodriguez, 63, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Dominican Republic who lives in Langley Park.

Lourdes Rodriguez, 63, is originally from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Langley Park has been a citizen for 13 years. She says her neighbors who are undocumented will probably skip the census rather than answer a question about citizenship. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Mohammad Rafi, the 55-year-old manager of Tabeer restaurant, in the same shopping mall as Brewster’s store, said he gota glimpse of how fearful some immigrants are a few weeks ago when federal agents showed up.

“They asked me, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’ ” he said.

He said yes, and they left. But business, he said, had been slow ever since.

Behind him stood water glasses holding folded napkins. It was dinnertime, but the restaurant was empty.

“People are scared to come here,” Rafi said.

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