The Trump administration has used the most of its federal authority to crack down on immigrants in the United States. But when it comes to the 2020 census, it will also be tasked with counting them.
Trump still has to name a director for the Census Bureau, and Congress has set a funding cap for the 2020 census that is certain to be inadequate. With leadership and budget woes, there is concern as to how the Bureau will accurately count vulnerable populations — especially communities that include undocumented immigrants.
To understand how the Trump administration’s priorities might affect undocumented Latino immigrants, and in some cases even documented citizens who live with undocumented individuals, I turned to Arturo Vargas, a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations. He is also the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund.
“For immigrants, there's always been a fear that data could be shared with the immigration enforcement arms of the federal government,” Vargas says.
He said Latino Americans face all sorts of threats from a president openly hostile to them, and advocates are concerned that inadequate attention to the census could hurt Latinos even more.
“It's often the communities who are most likely to be missed or undercounted in the census that miss out on the resources of which they are most in need,” Vargas says. “Assuring these families that their census data is going to be safe and confidential is going to be a particular challenge for the 2020 census.”
I interviewed Vargas to ask him about the leadership, funding, outreach, and accuracy challenges the Census Bureau is facing — and what it could mean for the 2020 census and for vulnerable populations in the US.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed below.
The challenges the Census Bureau currently faces seem to threaten the accuracy of the 2020 data. Can you explain to me why accurate census data is so important and why it may be particularly important for the Latino population in America?
Well, the census itself has never been completely accurate. Over time it's gotten better, and the 2010 census was, according to the Census Bureau, the most accurate census they had held.
But some populations are counted less well than other populations, and those populations who are counted less well include immigrants, poor people, children, non-English speaking populations, and rural populations.
Now the census itself is used for two primary purposes: the allocation of political representation and the distribution of public resources. The Constitution requires the census in order to reapportion the US House of Representatives, so 435 congressional seats are apportioned to the 50 states based on the population each state has. And then the data is used to draw those congressional districts and other electoral districts so that they are in equal population to each other and also to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
You mentioned that one of the populations that is at risk of being undercounted is immigrants. Does the Census Bureau ask about citizenship status?
The decennial census form does not ask about citizenship or immigration status, but a separate survey that's part of the Census Bureau, called the American Community Survey, does include questions on citizenship.
It asks a small sample of the US public every year for very detailed data, and a couple of those questions are whether the respondent was born in the United States or not, whether the respondent is a naturalized citizen, and in what country the respondent was born. Those are the three questions pertaining to citizenship in the American Community Survey, but there is no citizenship status question on the decennial census form.
Is there any difficulty in surveying immigrant populations because of a fear of being asked of their immigration status?
Absolutely. Any time that you are asking anybody in the public to provide the government with personal information, there is always a level of skepticism or fear that their data will be kept confidential and in no way used against them. And for immigrants, there's always been a fear that data could be shared with the immigration enforcement arms of the federal government.
How large an effort is usually made to address those issues of assuring communities of what the purpose of the census is and that their data will remain confidential?
A certain confidentiality in the census and making sure that the public understands it always seems to be the biggest hurdle that the Census Bureau has in getting the public to participate. And in the current environment we find ourselves going into the 2020 census with, we know there has been a particularly strident increase in sentiment that is considered to be anti-immigrant. There is concern by many immigrant families that enforcement has been more of a priority for the current federal government.
Do you think President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric exacerbates the misconception that the census could be used for immigration enforcement?
We know that the president's rhetoric — not just to Latino immigrants but the vast variety of immigrant communities across the country and racial minorities — has not been positive. So it's going to be a bigger burden for the Census Bureau — which is an arm of the Trump administration and that is going to be led by appointees of the Trump administration — to carry out its job. And that is a job that's required by the Constitution.
There is no option not to do the census. In fact, if the Census Bureau does not do its job well, it really is failing its constitutional obligation.
With such policies like the possible end of DACA in sight, do you think that the Trump administration will make that needed effort to inform immigrant communities that the census is safe for them to take?
Well, the future of DACA at risk does create an even greater sense of uncertainty and ambiguity about the status of a number of immigrants who came forward to participate in that federal program.
The question will be: If DACA is not continued, what will happen with the information that the federal government has about these 800,000 or some immigrants who have participated in DACA? We know that, legally, the federal government is not supposed to use it for any other purposes than the implementation of the DACA program. So this will be a test about the honesty and honorability of the current administration to carry out its legal obligation.
If a population is undercounted, what are the consequences, not just for their political representation but for their local officials, for government programs, for outside research and advocacy and so on?
Well, there are three principal problems that will emerge from inaccurate census data. First, of course, is the inaccurate or inappropriate distribution of political representation or political power. Number two would be the inaccurate distribution of public funds to the different states. And third, policymakers rely on census data all the time to make informed decisions about government programs and policies that they will be implementing. These are decisions made from school boards and city councils all the way up to Congress. And if you have flawed data that doesn’t accurately represent the population, you're not going to be making the best decisions.
So for example, we know that in the 2010 census, 1 million very young children were not counted. These are children ages zero to 4. Of those, 400,000 were Latinos. Take Los Angeles County, where 47,000 very young Latino children were missed. For any decision that LA County made since the 2010 census up until now, dealing with issues for children — whether it's head-start programs, prenatal programs, postnatal programs, early childhood programs, any of those programs — those decisions affecting those programs were done with data that was missing 47,000 children because they weren't counted in the census.
What are the most important things between now and 2020 that can and should be done and by whom?
The most important thing that needs to be done is Congress needs to appropriate the Census Bureau sufficient resources so that it tests all these new strategies it's planning to implement to make sure that we don't have a disaster come April 2020. And that is only two and a half years from now, so we're in the home stretch in preparation for the census.
And we're going to need to have a massive community outreach program so that the public understands how to be counted in the census.