Trump’s pronouncements on the U.S. Census reflect his furious attempts to inflame his racist, xenophobic base and to normalize his practice of ruling by decree. Though some Democrats are resisting the power grab, who really loses out are immigrants, undocumented workers, Blacks, Native Americans and the working poor.
Why the census matters. The U.S. Constitution says the census must count every person living in the United States in order to arrive at fair representation and tax apportionment. It doesn’t say to count all citizens, or all men, or all adults, or all white people. This was reinforced after the Civil War to clarify that freed slaves no longer counted as just three-fifths of a person, but as whole people.
An accurate census is necessary because results determine, for the next ten years, how much each state or locality gets of the estimated $1.5 trillion of yearly federal funding for such necessities as healthcare, education, housing, transportation, and more. That’s working people’s tax payments — and there is disagreement over who gets the money. Does it go to the already rich and comfortable or to the poor and marginalized who do all the work?
That answer depends a lot on who has the strongest political representation. Census rolls are used to draw state and local voting districts. The count determines how many elected representatives a state has in Congress. Those with representation have more power over funding and policies.
Low census figures hurt the already marginalized the most. In 2010, the count of Native Americans and Alaska Natives on reservations was short by nearly five percent — a number twice that of African Americans, who are next on the list of the undercounted. Poverty, isolation and lack of internet access hit reservation dwellers hard. The only Native language available on the census form is Navajo, but numerous other languages are spoken. Despite heroic local efforts in Native communities, predictions are that the percentage of uncounted will increase this time around. Chaotic schedules, contradictory rules and presidential pronouncements will all be damaging.
When the pandemic hit, the deadline for responding to the census questionnaire was extended to October 31. Then, in the first week of August, the White House demanded it be finished by the end of September, a rushed time limit many experts said would make an accurate count impossible. Those communities most likely to be undercounted would be those in the most need of services and a political voice. And, of course, in the middle of an unprecedented national health and economic crisis, more time, not less, is needed to conduct such an enormous project.
Erasing immigrants. Months before the count started, Trump ramped up his attack on the undocumented. For the first time, he wanted the questionnaire to ask people whether they were U.S. citizens. That attempt to nullify the rights and needs of non-citizens was thrown out by courts. So, he issued an order to the Census Bureau to just exclude the estimated number of undocumented residents for purposes of deciding congressional districts. He asserts he has the right to impose “any rule I want” and that people in the U.S. without papers have no rights. Scores of civil rights and civil liberties organizations took the issue to court. On September 10, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan overturned the executive order citing its blanket unconstitutionality.
Not surprisingly, distrust of the government is high in immigrant communities. Many residents fear that to give any information to a federal official could bring “La Migra” to their door. And “confidential data” has been abused before. For example, secret use of census info helped the U.S. government locate Japanese-origin residents and send them to internment camps in WWII.
As a result of intimidation and government indifference, regions with poor, rural areas and large immigrant populations, like New York, California, Texas, and Florida, are routinely under-counted. Money and political representation instead go to white, wealthier communities, sometimes in the same state. People who don’t or can’t fill out census forms, or whose forms are not counted, cease to exist for purposes of help from the federal government.
To counter the assault on low-income people and communities of color, immigration leaders from New York to Los Angeles, activists on reservations in Alaska and New Mexico, and Black community organizers across the country have planned and mobilized for months to get information into people’s hands to explain how and why to turn in census forms.
Making people count. As an undocumented worker and census coordinator for Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Mateo Uribe Ríos has helped organize informational car caravans in immigrant communities. He told the Southside Weekly that he is strongly aware of the contradiction between promoting census participation while “at the same time, the government is also doing things that discourage us from receiving those benefits the other nine years of the decade,” such as quality schools, community infrastructure, and social services.
“For the Black community, where are the reparations? For the indigenous community, what are you doing to repair that relationship? For other folks of color, what are you doing to create additional opportunities?” Ultimately, Uribe Ríos recognizes that the answer lies in confronting systemic oppression and working towards accountability: “We need to do more.”
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