NYC Looks to Ease Fears Amid Trump’s Push for Citizenship Question on 2020 Census

Immigrants take the oath of citizenship to the United States during a naturalization ceremony on Roosevelt Island in June 2017. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As President Donald Trump seeks to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census, New York City says it is working to fight the proposal and increase awareness about the census, as well as its privacy and confidentiality protections to ensure that all New Yorkers are counted.

On March 29, the U.S. Census Bureau submitted its planned questions for the census, which included age, sex, race, relationship, homeownership status and citizenship status. The census will occur on April 1, 2020. The Census Bureau argued the citizenship status question would help enforce the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which it notes is asked in the annual American Community Survey (ACS).

The Bureau is conducting the 2018 Census Test in Rhode Island. The test does not include the citizenship question.

Elected officials and advocates argue the addition of a citizenship question for the first time since 1950 could decrease immigrant participation. And officials note that the city already faces challenges in getting an accurate count—now compounded by Trump’s immigration policies and internet security breaches.

“The whole spirit of the Voting Rights Act goes in the exact opposite direction, and this seems to be nothing else than a partisan political move aimed at cities like New York and other cities with large immigrant populations to try and bolster one political party’s power over another,” J. Phillip Thompson, deputy mayor for strategic policy initiatives, said during a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon.

The discussion, moderated by NY1 Political Anchor Errol Louis and hosted by the Center for Community and Ethnic Media (CCEM), an initiative of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, also included Marisa Lago, director of the Department of City Planning (DCP), and Bitta Mostofi, acting commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA).

New York, Thompson said, is “always undercounted,” and one of the reasons is because there is a large number of “doubled up households” that are afraid to report to landlords that they are not on the lease—a problem he says existed when he was deputy general manager of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) in the 1990s.

“We thought our population—based on the amount of garbage and other things—was a lot more than the people who were registered on the lease,” he continued. “So we actually measured population based on toilet flushes, and we estimated an additional 200,000 people living in public housing based on toilet flushes.”

Indeed, the 2010 Census left out 50,000 individuals in Brooklyn and Queens because the Census Bureau erroneously determined that a large number of homes were vacant.

The mayor’s “Get Counted” initiative, a census outreach campaign, includes a new census coordinator to lead a campaign to get more immigrant and low-income New Yorkers counted in the census. That team will be under Thompson’s purview.

Thompson said the city will be interviewing candidates in the next few weeks. The team would coordinate with city agencies as well as community groups, labor unions, churches and other institutions in the city.

“My job is really to coordinate the city’s response,” Thompson told Observer following the panel discussion. “We’re in the process of setting up a team with a census director, and this is part of our broader initiative around increasing participation of New Yorkers in all aspects of government and public life, but we plan to be very aggressive and to utilize many of our programs such as our summer youth jobs program and other programs to help get the word out to help organize communities and to work with local community groups.”

In the city, whose population is 8.6 million, 200 languages are spoken and more than three million residents are immigrants, according to the de Blasio administration. And the city has some of the biggest Latino, Asian, Caribbean and African populations of any American city.

Of the three million immigrants, approximately 560,000 are undocumented, according to Mostofi. And one million households are mixed households (at least one family member is undocumented). Florida, California, Texas and Arizona also have large immigrant populations.

And the most recent ACS survey found that in 2016, there 22.5 million individuals who were not American citizens.

The Census Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the United States Code, which states that personal information given for the census cannot be published or shared with any other government agencies.

Mostofi said the citizenship question has not yet been tested, noting the census undergoes a “tremendous amount of preparation” and that the city has underwent “months and months of preparation” already that includes “a real, on the ground testing.”

“In terms of a real tangible understanding of what this means and what its impact will mean—which is the whole purpose of the testing—they don’t actually know that and that compromises the integrity of the process altogether,” she said.

She reiterated the census has “tremendous” confidentiality protections and that a citizenship question would not ask people about immigration status.

At the moment, she explained, people have “increased fear and concern.”

“We’ll, on the one hand, combat the inclusion of a question that was never tested and the impact not truly understood by anybody, and on the other, increase the education and awareness and information sharing about the census, its privacy and confidentiality protections and the importance of it,” Mostofi told Observer after the discussion.

The census count determines representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as political districts at the federal, state and local levels. The city receives $7 billion in federal funding that goes toward areas such as education, health care and infrastructure.

In 1980, the Census Bureau rejected the inclusion of a citizenship question. And in 2009, all eight former Census Bureau directors declared that adding an untested citizenship question “would put the accuracy of the enumeration of communities at risk.”

Lago noted questions added to the census get tested for a number of years, including the order in which the questions are asked. The DCP is currently confirming addresses.

“The Census Bureau sends us a list,” she said. “We then take it and, using our knowledge of where communities are, use it to go and buttress it in areas that we believe have been undercounted before, where there has been an explosion of growth, where we believe that they are undercounted.”

During the summer, the DCP will be working to get addresses of all types of structures: buildings such as apartments, attics, backrooms of grocery stores and other areas that are harder to count. She said their responses are due early this summer.

“It’s [data] aggregated and the numbers that result do not identify individuals,” Lago continued. “It is aggregate information. The other [point] is that the statute imposes criminal penalties for release of census information so the stakes are high.”

When asked whether U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could use census data, Lago stressed that the data that is available to ICE—also available to the DCP—is “aggregated, anonymized data.” Mostofi added that ICE has its own data.

On Tuesday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, leading a coalition of 18 attorneys general and six cities—including New York City—and the bipartisan U.S. Conference of Mayors, filed a lawsuit against Trump’s proposal.

Thompson called for mobilizing and organizing people to combat the effort to “drive immigrants underground.”

“The best protection is actually to get out there, work with other people, make everyone aware of what’s going on and build that kind of resistance,” he said.

NYC Looks to Ease Fears Amid Trump’s Push for Citizenship Question on 2020 Census