By Jonathan Greig

President Donald Trump put the 2020 Census into further disarray this week when he released a memorandum on Tuesday declaring that undocumented people will not be counted in how congressional seats are doled out to each state.

The U.S. Constitution is clear that everyone living in the country, regardless of status, needs to be counted for the census and the 14th Amendment mandates that state representatives are apportioned based on the entire population count. But in Tuesday’s memorandum, Trump officials claim the term “inhabitants” is up for debate and can exclude people who are undocumented. 

Legal experts and census advocacy groups immediately called the move blatantly unconstitutional and impossible to carry out considering the Supreme Court ruled last year that questions about citizenship will not be included on the census.

Vendors gather in front of an immigration law office in Brooklyn. Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre

The ACLU has already released a statement threatening to sue the federal government again over the memorandum.

“The Constitution requires that everyone in the U.S. be counted in the census. President Trump can’t pick and choose. He tried to add a citizenship question to the census and lost in the Supreme Court,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and the lawyer who helped win the citizenship question case last year. 

“His latest attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities will be found unconstitutional. We’ll see him in court, and win, again.”

In states like Florida and New York, there are thousands of Haitians living under Temporary Protected Status or as undocumented immigrants, and the census response rates in neighborhoods with large Haitian populations is already lower than the national average

“It’s so disturbing and demoralizing because our communities lag behind others both locally and nationally in the updated response rates. We are deeply concerned that this news will cast fear,” said Leonie Hermantin, communications director for Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami.

The group has been at the forefront of efforts to get more Haitians and Haitian-Americans in Florida to fill out the census before the deadline in October. But Hermantin said their work has been hampered by Trump’s failed but widely-publicized attempts to add the citizenship question last year and the coronavirus pandemic, which has made in-person census events difficult to hold.

NYC Census 2020 Field Director Kathleen Daniel echoed those concerns, telling The Haitian Times that this latest move from the White House was another unfounded effort to create headlines intended to scare immigrants away from the census.

“It does not change the fact that there is no citizenship question on the census. Even if it was, Title 13, which has never been violated, says the information provided by everyone on the census can only be used for statistical purposes and cannot be shared with any other agency including law enforcement, ICE or the executive branch,” Daniel said.

“Even if the president wanted to argue this, there is no citizenship information on the census so there is no data that could not be used to determine who is and is not a citizen. There will be a lot of news stories about this, and some might say this was created to generate news stories, but the fact remains that the census is safe, it is easy to do and it is critically important. The memo makes an argument for things that may or may not be legal,” she added.

Other Haitian-American politicians and groups said it was yet another attempt by the Trump administration to siphon resources and funding away from Democratic-run states by securing a census undercount. 

Josue Pierre, Democratic Leader for the 42nd assembly district, said the memorandum was intentionally meant to disenfranchise people of color and was targeting states with large immigrant populations, most of which are run by Democratic officials. 

Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre

“I consider this akin to when Black people were considered three-fifths of human beings. If you have a district with 600,000 people in it, why would you only count 400,000 people? This is fully in line with Trump’s idea of how to constrict the number of voters, the amount of representation and the political power in states that are heavily Democratic,” Pierre said.

Pascale Bernard, vice president of Community Organizing and Political Affairs for the Planned Parenthood of Greater New York Action Fund, went even further, calling the memorandum “blatantly racist and xenophobic.”

Bernard and Planned Parenthood have held a number of local events and drives to promote the census and increase response rates, particularly in Haitian neighborhoods.

“As we head toward the November election, Donald Trump continues to revert to tactics from the anti-black, anti-immigrant playbooks of Bull O’Conner and George Wallace to rally his base.  We have to remain steadfast in our commitment to ensure a fair, accurate census and that everyone is counted. The rebuilding of our city and state is dependent on it,” said Bernard, who is Haitian-American herself. 

Daniel, Bernard, Pierre and Hermantin all said people need to ignore the unconstitutional actions by the Trump administration and remember just how important the census is to federal funding for education, housing and healthcare. It will also play a pivotal role in how COVID-19 vaccines are handed out when it becomes available to the public. 

Right now, the national census response rate is above 62% but New York state has barely hit 58% and New York City is lagging behind at about 54%. Both Brooklyn and Queens still have response rates under 54%.

Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre

Neighborhoods with large Haitian populations are struggling to bring in responses. Cambria Heights leads the pack with a 59.3% response rate while Flatbush is still hovering around 57.1%. Springfield Gardens (56.6%), Queens Village (52.4%) and the Flatlands (51.4%) are all barely above 50% but East Flatbush South (47.9%), Jamaica (46.8%), Canarsie (46.0%) and East Flatbush North (44.8%) are still in the 40% range.

“It’s important that New Yorkers know that the city is reviewing every aspect of the memorandum. The city is prepared to defend its position because we are a sanctuary city and according to the constitution, everyone has a right to be counted. It is critical that New Yorkers continue to respond to the census,” Daniel said.

“There are 100 days left in this decade to do the census. How many things can we say we can do now that will last the next 10 years?”

Jonathan Greig

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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