Last year, the Supreme Court blocked the administration from adding a citizenship question to the census. But three weeks ago, the president released a memo calling for undocumented immigrants to be excluded from the “apportionment base” following the census.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that it would also end all door-to-door outreach on September 30, one month sooner than originally planned.
At a virtual roundtable last week, Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said these are all deliberate attempts to instill fear, create confusion and minimize participation, especially by undocumented immigrants.
“The central intention of the Trump administration has been to undermine the complete count,” she said. “This new memo is just a political stunt, one that’s deeply concerning because of how nefarious it is.”
According to Amit Singh Bagga, deputy director of NYC Census 2020, New York City has already filed a lawsuit, along with New York Attorney General Letitia James, to halt the “attempted exclusion” of undocumented immigrants from the count. He said the shortening of the census count will be part of that discussion in court.
Bagga noted that because the Trump administration had the legal authority to extend the timeframe of the count due to the COVID-19 crisis, they would also have the legal authority to shorten it. But he also said Congress is responsible for the census.
Last week, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced an update to legislation that would extend the deadline for the Census Bureau to provide the complete results of the enumeration to Congress to next April. The bill would also extend the door-to-door follow-up outreach back October 30.
Meeta Anand, the Census 2020 Senior Fellow with the New York Immigration Coalition, said the memo is an “end run” around the citizenship question, another attempt to ensure cities like New York “don’t get their money and representation.”
“What they’re saying is they’re scared of us,” she said. “They will resort to anything to ensure our true colors and numbers can’t be shown.”
Anand said the best way to fight against their efforts is to encourage full participation of the census.
“Just ignore them,” she added. ”We are going to win.”
The virtual roundtable also served as a way to dispel myths, concerns, misconceptions and fears about filling out the census, especially among undercounted communities. Mostofi reassured New Yorkers that not only is there no citizenship question on the form, but there are no questions about social security, income or political affiliation.
The commissioner noted that by law, the Census Bureau cannot share any specific information about an individual with law enforcement or even the city.
“This is about making sure that you, your family, your household, everyone is counted as being here in New York City and part of our communities,” she said.
With less than two months before the end of the count, Census Bureau enumerators, also known as “census takers,” are going door-to-door to the homes of people who have not filled out the form.
As of August 4, the country as a whole has a completion rate of nearly 63 percent. But in New York City, only 54.8 percent of residents have filled out the census. Queens has an initial return rate of 55 percent, while Brooklyn is the lowest at 52 percent.
According to Bagga, at the current self-response rate New York stands to lose up to two seats in Congress.
“When we don’t show up in the numbers, there’s no way for us to demonstrate strength,” he said. “It is critical for us to show the power of our communities.”
The census is not only a way to count every single person living in the country, Bagga said, but also the basis of how $1.5 trillion in federal government funds are spent for schools, affordable housing, senior centers, health care and education programs and more. It also determines how the 435 seats in the House of Representatives are distributed among the 50 states.
“It’s the very foundation of our democracy,” he said. “It’s the basis of how the state gets the money, power and respect we are constitutionally guaranteed.”
To get as many New Yorkers as possible to fill out the census, the city has created a Complete Count Fund, which launched a $16 million multilingual and targeted advertising campaign. The campaign includes digital outreach and an interagency partnership engagement program.
According to Kathleen Daniel, the field director for NYC Census 2020, enumerators still have more than one-million households to knock on as part of the non-response follow-up efforts.
Neighborhoods in Queens that have the lowest self-response rates include Corona, Elmhurst, Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park and Jamaica. In Brooklyn, the areas include South Williamsburg, Coney Island, Canarsie and Mill Basin.
Jagpreet Singh, lead organizer for Chhaya Community Development Corporation, said areas like Richmond Hill, which boasts a high population of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean residents, are responding to the census at just above a 30 percent rate. In 2010, he said, Richmond Hill was also undercounted.
Singh attributes the low response rate to a confluence of factors, including the prevalence of informal housing, such as basement apartments, room shares and other units. He said those communities have a “justifiable fear” of the government as a whole, especially after hate crimes and harassment that took place after September 11.
“That’s why we partner with institutions like ourselves and religious centers to get this information out,” he said.
In recent weeks, organizations like Chhaya and census organizers have been hitting the streets helping local residents fill out the census.
Many residents in Richmond Hill also don’t have reliable internet service, and some have limited English proficiency. Singh noted that information often doesn’t reach the elderly or day laborers.
“These are the folks who will only be reached if we go to local institutions, stores, things along those lines, and catch them in between shifts,” he added. “We need all the help we can get in South Queens.”
With less than two months until the census count is over, government officials like Mostofi are still urging residents to self-respond so enumerators don’t have to knock on their doors.
“Each and every one of us has that much more responsibility,” she said. “We’re committed and reliant on each other to get the word out.”