A census enumerator shows her badge
Illustrative photo of Census worker collecting survey responses. Nearly 17,000 workers will visit 1 million homes by the Sept. 30 deadline. U.S. Census Bureau

By Jonathan Greig

As door-to-door enumerators take to the streets in the final month of the 2020 Census, dozens of states and civil rights groups are suing the Trump administration over the decennial count, scheduled to end September 30. The plaintiffs say the administration expressly designed their regulations to undercount minority groups, such as Haitian Americans. 

“This administration’s perspective was that there were folks they didnt want to be counted, like undocumented folks and people with immigrant backgrounds,” said Santra Denis, president and founder of Avanse Ansanm. “The more that folks can remove power from us in terms of representation, [the] better it is for other folks.”

For as long as President Donald Trump has been in office, the White House has waged a public, overt battle against the Census Bureau’s efforts to count everyone. In hundreds of interviews, legal memoranda and speeches, Trump has disputed and fought the Bureau’s efforts to count anyone who is not a citizen, an act in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution.  

Trump’s actions, while legally unsuccessful, have had a noticeable effect on the census count. By mid-summer, many immigrant-heavy districts and census tracts reported record low response rates. Advocates said the publicity alone has had a chilling effect on the desire of immigrants and non-citizens to complete the census form.

To counter the effects, leaders across the community are encouraging people to complete the census, often explaining that it determines how much money the community receives for such essential services as healthcare and education. Since the Sept. 30 deadline was announced, in-person enumeration efforts have also helped close the gap in self-response rates in states with large Haitian populations. 

“We have to keep drilling [into] our community that it is important to be counted,” said Pascale Bernard, vice president of Public Affairs and Organizing for Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. “Everything that we hold dear as people is at stake. COVID-19 has really shown the disparities in healthcare. When we’re looking at the zip codes that have been hardest hit, our people live in those zip codes.” 

As of Sept. 9, both New York and Florida are more than 80% counted thanks to the nonresponse follow-ups. Self-response rates hover around 62% in both states, with about 20% of people counted by in-person enumerators, according to the Census Bureau. 

To understand how Trump’s census undercounting strategy played out, here are the most disruptive tactics his administration attempted. 

The citizenship question

Trump fought tooth-and-nail to include the question, “Are you a Citizen of the United States?” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

During the Supreme Court hearings, The Washington Post revealed that a Republican redistricting strategist was behind the effort and openly told White House officials it would “benefit Republicans and white voters” by keeping away immigrant groups and minorities.

After the Supreme Court ruling, Trump told his administration to defy the decision. 

For weeks, White House officials told states and the public that there would be no citizenship question while Trump tweeted the opposite, vowing to put the question on the form through other means. The confusion ultimately spread unfounded fear and anxiety about how the Trump administration would use data collected from the census. 

The apportionment memo

Immigrant rights groups across the country were outraged in July when Trump released a controversial, unconstitutional memorandum claiming the government would exclude non-citizens from apportionment, the process of redrawing congressional maps based on local population changes.

Because the Supreme Court removed the citizenship question, this act would be impossible even if it were not unconstitutional. But Trump has publicized his efforts and forced state attorney generals to take him to court over it. New York Attorney General Letitia James was in federal court on September 1 attempting to have the memorandum struck down. 

News coverage of the issue in the last weeks of a census count already hampered by the coronavirus pandemic made the response rates low and scared away immigrants. In an interview with The Washington Post, Senator Brian Schatz said the memo was “an illegal and unconstitutional attempt to scare people from participating in the census and influence congressional representation.”

Ending the Census count early 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a disastrous effect on the ability of the Census Bureau to get an accurate count. While this is the first census where people can respond online, the most effective way to count people is through enumerators, who go door to door to get information on households, New York Regional Director for the Census Bureau Jeff Behler told The Haitian Times.

Multiple deadlines for the end of the census were pushed back to the last date possible, which Bureau officials said was October 31. That would’ve allowed time to send the full count to Congress and the White House by early 2021. 

In August, the Trump administration confounded experts when it shortened the deadline, moving it up to the end of September. It was revealed on September 1 that for certain areas, the in-person count will end even earlier

Multiple leaks from inside the Census Bureau have shown that officials are terrified that the rushed count will lead to a tsunami of mistakes and errors

To fill out the census online, go to my2020census.gov or call 844-330-2020 for English. To complete the census in Haitian Creole, call 844-477-2020.

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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