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Citizen census question sparks local fears


A recent announcement that the 2020 census will include a question about citizenship sparked new fears among the immigrant population on the East End and raised the possibility of an undercount that could jeopardize federal funding for states.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced the decision March 26, immediately causing controversy nationally with fears that the citizenship question will discourage responses from immigrants and skew the results. Census data is used in part to apportion Congressional seats, enforce voting rights laws and allocate federal funds.

Other national surveys have asked about citizenship status, but the census, which occurs every 10 years, hasn’t done so since 1950, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In that year, the question asked specifically: “If foreign born, is [the responding person] naturalized?”

Mr. Ross’ decision was based on a December request from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In a March 26 memo, Mr. Ross wrote that he had reviewed considerations from stakeholders and the Census Bureau in coming to his decision.

“I have determined that reinstatement of a citizenship question is necessary to provide complete and accurate data in response to the DOJ request,” he wrote. “To minimize any impact on decennial census response rates, I am directing the Census Bureau to place the citizenship question last on the decennial census form.”

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced the next day that he would lead a multi-state lawsuit to “preserve a fair and accurate census.”

“A fair and accurate count of all people in America is one of the federal government’s most solemn constitutional obligations,” Mr. Schneiderman said in a March 27 statement. “The Trump administration’s reckless decision to suddenly abandon nearly 70 years of practice by demanding to know the citizenship status of each resident counted cuts to the heart of this sacred obligation — and will create an environment of fear and distrust in immigrant communities that would make impossible both an accurate census and the fair distribution of federal tax dollars.”

Adding the citizenship question targets states like New York that have large immigrant populations, he said. On April 3, Mr. Schneiderman filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to block citizenship information from being gathered as part of the census. Parties to the lawsuit include 18 attorneys general, six cities and the Bipartisan Conference of U.S. Mayors.

“The resulting undercount will not only fatally undermine the accuracy of the 2020 census, but will jeopardize critical federal funding needed by states and localities to provide services and support for millions of residents,” according to the suit. “Further, it will deprive historically marginalized immigrant communities of critical public and private resources over the next 10 years.”

Edgar Samudio, 23, came to the United States from Costa Rica at age 13 and has lived in Riverhead ever since. After graduating from Riverhead High School in 2013, he attended Stony Brook University and graduated recently with a degree in computer science.

“I did that while being 100 percent undocumented,” he said. “It’s one of those things where now there’s been an increase in fear in the community.”

Mr. Samudio said there are multiple reasons why he believes the citizenship question is an issue. He wonders what the government will do with the information and said that the census will not reflect accurate numbers if undocumented immigrants choose to not participate out of fear.

“If we simply don’t open the door, then overall we get less funding and there’s less representation in government in general,” Mr. Samudio said. “It’s essentially a lose-lose situation, the way I see it, if this question does get added at the end.”

Chris Worth, an immigration attorney based on the East End, said there’s “definitely a lot of fear in the community” and acknowledged that immigrants have different reasons to be afraid.

“This isn’t one of them,” he said of the census, adding that there are protections so census information provided by those who participate will not be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit that aims to promote development within local Latino and Hispanic communities, said her organization is seeing “drastic retrenching and self-isolation going on among the Latino members of our community, who feel more vulnerable.”

“This is dangerous because they are integral members of our greater East End community and they are suffering,” Ms. Perez said in an email. “Through our small efforts, with emergency transportation to medical visits, we see tremendous needs not being met (not getting to pediatric visits, OB/GYN, mental health, cancer treatments), yet families too afraid to share their needs. This census is now another bludgeon.

It will be called a tool to ‘help’ but it will be viewed as a tool to ferret out numbers that will be used against our communities. Either way, it’s a loss.”

Mr. Worth said while he hasn’t been asked about the census directly, he notices other instances in which people are afraid to speak up or are unsure about what will happen if they do. For example, he said, there are workers who have had their wages stolen, but refuse to alert the Department of Labor due to concern about being arrested by ICE.

Mr. Worth said there are some protections for those who report issues such as wage theft and that, in general, people should always report crimes to the police.

Mr. Samudio said friends called him recently about rumors that immigration raids were going on in Huntington.

“You hear all these things and when you hear somebody’s going to be knocking on your door, asking if you’re a citizen, it makes people afraid,” he said.