Little Haiti, Brooklyn. Photo Credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

Census officials and rights groups are particularly worried about lower responses from Haitian communities in New York City due to the increase of very public, sometimes arbitrary arrests or deportations by ICE and a number of offensive comments from President Trump denigrating Haiti and its people.

Little Haiti, Brooklyn. Photo Credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre

By Jonathan Greig

The 2020 Census is quickly approaching and New York City officials are terrified that recent moves by the Trump administration will depress the response rate — drastically affecting how congressional seats and federal dollars are doled out nationwide.

Julie Menin, census director for New York City, held a press conference with reporters on March 7 where she begged the public to turn out for the countrywide count in March 2020 and said the Trump administration was openly trying to take federal tax dollars away from New York by intimidating or discouraging immigrant communities from participating.

According to Menin, the clearest example of this intimidation is the heavily controversial Trump administration decision to add the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” to the census for the first time since 1950.

“This question is a blatant attempt to suppress the response rate in immigrant communities and communities of color across the city. This is an attempt to defund cities and not just New York City, but cities that have high immigrant populations, and switch the funding to red states,” she said.

I’m not saying anything that we all don’t know. We read about it every day in the press. There is a war on immigrants in this country and this is one piece of it. And that is why it’s so important that the city have a concerted effort to fight back against this. We have to send a loud and clear message to the Trump administration that they will not succeed in suppressing the rights of immigrants in our city. This is one of the reasons why we are suing.”

The Case Against the Question

Whether or not the question will be included in the census has been a topic of much debate since White House officials announced the addition in 2017.

The question is at the center of six lawsuits filed by 18 states, dozens of cities and a number of rights organizations across the country. The Trump administration has already lost two district court cases and the one from New York was fast tracked to the Supreme Court last month because the Department of Commerce — which controls the Census Bureau — needs to know by June whether the question will be added or not in order to have enough time to print all the copies needed for the count. Oral arguments at the Supreme Court will take place in mid-April.

The man behind the question, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, has been thoroughly criticized by census experts and was grilled in Congress yesterday about the faulty reasoning behind the census changes. John Abowd, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist, wrote a report with detailed testimony from immigrants who said they would ignore the census if the question is added. They cited everything from news reports about ICE arrests to the so-called “Muslim Ban” as reasons why they would be afraid to give the government information about their household.

New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez revealed earlier this month that Ross not only lied to Congress about the need for the citizenship question but also reportedly forced the Justice Department to ask for the census changes despite vociferous protests from officials in his own office and in the Justice Department. Ross and the Trump administration have said the question is needed in order to enforce the Voting Rights Act, which New York federal judge Jesse Furman recently called a “sham justification.”

Officials within the Commerce and Justice Department warned Ross that news of the question’s potential addition to the census alone would have a devastating effect on response rates. Ocasio-Cortez noted during her questioning that there was now hard evidence from the multiple trials — including emails, meetings and calls between Ross and former Trump advisor Kris Kobach — proving that a depressed response rate was the explicit goal of the move.

New York has one of the largest non-citizen populations in the country and New York City particularly is a hub for immigrants. Over 20 percent of the city’s population is composed of naturalized US citizens and 17 percent of the city’s residents are not citizens. About 11 percent are green card holders and an estimated 6 percent are undocumented.

There are about 5,400 Haitians, including 1,900 US-born children, in New York City that have held Temporary Protected Status (TPS) since the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Census officials and rights groups are particularly worried about lower responses from Haitian communities in New York City due to the increase of very public, sometimes arbitrary arrests or deportations by ICE and a number of offensive comments from President Trump denigrating Haiti and its people.

In addition to publicly calling Haiti a “shithole,” claiming “all Haitians have AIDS” last year and asking why the US would want Haitian immigrants in the US at all, Trump has tried multiple times to unilaterally end TPS for Haitians, which has allowed nearly 50,000 Haitians to live in the US since in 2010.

A district court in California ruled against Homeland Security in October, allowing Haitian TPS residents to stay until at least September 2020. Courts across the country have repeatedly stopped the Trump administration from ending the program and deporting those staying under TPS, but the government’s harsh rhetoric and actions on immigration have created a noticeable climate of fear in immigrant communities.  

Paul Westrick, manager of Democracy Policy at The New York Immigration Coalition, told the Haitian Times that the citizenship question will do much more than scare away anyone with uncertain immigration status. Anyone living in a household with any non-citizens will now be reluctant to respond to the census out of fear that the data will be shared with ICE or Homeland Security.

“Although the Trump administration has said census information will not be shared, the fact that the Commerce Department lied about the reasons for adding a citizenship question (including during congressional testimony), chose not to follow standard testing procedures, and has taken the issue all the way to the Supreme Court casts enormous doubt on this claim and does not match up with how cruelly this administration has treated non-citizens for the last two years,” Westrick said.

“There is great fear within immigrant communities that census data will be used for purposes other than a general count of all persons living in the U.S. That fear is entirely valid, and unfortunately will certainly lead some to avoid completing the census altogether.”

Menin went above and beyond in her comments to repeatedly remind everyone that it is illegal for the Census Bureau to share information with any other government office. Census data legally cannot be shared with ICE or Homeland Security, according to Menin, and anyone who does would be charged with a felony.

“If we lose the case at the Supreme Court, we are then going to be really focusing on assuring people that Title 13 of the US Code protects the identity of the response. Title 13 is the section of the US Code that indicates that a federal census employee cannot share that census data, and if they were to share the data, it subjects them to up to 5 years in prison and up to $250,000 fines. That’s a lifetime ban as well. Title 13 is a strong protection,” she said.

Although ICE and Homeland Security are not allowed to view census data, the assurances from Menin came only two days after the Census Bureau signed a deal with the Department of Homeland Security that would give them access to a startling amount of information about immigrants. The AP said Homeland Security would share noncitizens’ full names and addresses, birth dates and places, as well as Social Security numbers and highly sensitive alien registration numbers. The Census Bureau defended the move, saying it was customary and needed to get an accurate population count.

Census Ramifications

Q&A with Julie Menin (far left) on 2020 Census.

“With the census, it’s not an overstatement to say that there could not be more at stake. The reason why is that we in New York City are fighting for our fair share of what will amount to over $7 trillion dollars that the fed government allocates to municipalities and states over the next decade,” Menin told reporters during an interview at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.

The United States has held a decennial census since 1790 and uses the count for a variety of purposes, ranging from how congressional districts are drawn to how much federal funding your local public schools receive. Menin warned that New York could lose at least 2 congressional seats if there is a low response rate in 2020. Officials from her office said New York had already lost two congressional seats after the last census, but said it was due to lower population growth and not census response rates.

“If we don’t get this right, this literally affects our funding over the next decade. And the funding that it affects specifically is over 300 social service programs. It affects everything from public school education, public housing, Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, special needs funding, infrastructure funding,” Menin added.

“Almost no program that you could throw out that does not relate directly to the census.”

Menin said fears about an undercount in this climate were doubled considering that in 2010, some of the lowest census response rates in the city were in immigrant-heavy Brooklyn neighborhoods. Menin said only 62 percent of New Yorkers self-responded to the census in 2010, far lower than the national average of 76 percent.

New York State receives $53 billion a year of funding in census-related programs, and the city is a lion’s share of that funding. We are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table for vital services, and basically just letting other jurisdictions have money that rightfully belongs to New York City,” Menin added.

Census officials are hoping the increased number of ways to fill out the census will increase the response rate. For the first time ever you can respond to the census online. About 80 percent of New Yorkers will receive a paper in the mail giving you a special code that you can use to fill out the census online. You will also get four mailed census documents and have until May 2020 to respond. If you don’t, that is when the census will send someone to your door.

The city will now be able to have real time data on response rates and can pinpoint areas that need in-person census workers — who Menin called “enumerators” — to get people or households to respond. The entire census will be completed by July 2020.

One enumerator, who spoke to the Haitian Times on condition of anonymity, canvassed Haitian neighborhoods in Boston for the 2010 census and said Haitian citizens and immigrants were more than happy to respond to his questions.    

Once I explained the reason for my questions, that it’s for long-term planning and to understand population and demographics within the city, people were almost always quite open. I specifically remember a handful of Haitian immigrants inviting me into their homes,” he said.

“As a side note, this was the summer of 2010, so the earthquake had happened very recently. We didn’t talk about that (you’re discouraged from asking any personal questions not on the questionnaire) but some of the places I canvassed appeared to be boarding houses with a religious affiliation and I’d imagine were helping out earthquake survivors.”

He added that it was a bit challenging because you’re supposed to figure out how many people are living in a home but not if they are staying there temporarily. It was also difficult because many of those he spoke with could only answer in Haitian Creole.  

Menin said the city would do everything in its power to protect the rights and information of immigrants, noting that the issue was particularly important to her personally.

“This is, in my belief, a war on immigration. My mom came here as a Holocaust survivor. She hid in a cellar in Budapest and then came here. My mother and grandmother survived but my grandfather and our other family members did not,” she said.  

“On the legal side, people’s information is completely confidential, so we have to hammer that home so that people have the assurances they need even if we do not win our case at the Supreme Court. Beyond that, it’s about understanding that are we going to let the Trump administration win? Are we going to let them defund New York City and move this funding to red states?”

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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