Seattle groups urge census turnout despite citizenship question uncertainty

In this provided photo, a person simulates a non-response follow-up interview in Providence, R.I. (Photo by U.S. Census Bureau.)

The fight over the citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. census continues, with the federal government reversing course on an announcement earlier this week that the forms would be printed without asking people about their citizenship status.

President Donald Trump this week asked the U.S. Department of Justice to find a way to include the citizenship question, less than a week after the Supreme Court of the United States upheld a block on the question on the 2020 census.

Community organizations, including the Washington Census Alliance, had argued that the question would frighten immigrants and communities of color from filling out the survey, possibly leading to an undercount that would lead to fewer financial resources and decreased political representation for Washington state.

The Washington Census Alliance is made up of more 70 organizations representing immigrants and communities of color from across the state, which all have been pushing for census participation even as they opposed against the citizenship question.

Their work continues, whatever the outcome is of the citizenship question.

“There is a bigger piece,” said alliance co-founder and advisor Cherry Cayabyab.  “The more accurate and complete the count is, the more accurate the resources are that are allocated to our communities. And also just having the data and knowing the growth of the population of our communities.”

Cayabyab said the Trump administration’s insistence on asking people about their citizenship status has already hurt people’s trust in the census — especially in light of incidents of agencies such as the Department of Licensing complying with federal immigration authorities’ requests for information.

“This just makes our job 10 times harder,” she said.

Cayabyab said the group remains committed in working to ensure that historically undercounted communities participate in an accurate — and safe — count. The group secured $15 million from the state for census outreach.

On Tuesday, many groups celebrated when the U.S. Department of Justice announced that the printing for the 2020 census would begin without the citizenship question, but the federal government reversed course on Wednesday. A U.S. Department of Justice attorney told the Supreme Court that Trump was ordering the department to find a way to add a citizenship question to the census form.

The U.S. Constitution calls for a census every 10 years, to determine how many representatives each state gets in Congress. The census also guides federal program funding to state agencies for healthcare, education, housing and foster care initiatives.  In 2014, Washington was allotted $14 billion for federal programs that are managed by state agencies.

A year ago, community organizations from around King County gathered in White Center to encourage census participation in communities that have historically been undercounted — many are immigrants and communities of color.

These communities often hesitate to fill out the census because they don’t realize that the census counts all residents regardless of immigration status, or because they are afraid that their status might be used against them and their families.

Groups like the Washington Census Alliance criticized the federal government’s efforts to include a question about citizenship, calling it an attempt to frighten immigrant communities away from participation, which could result in undercounting them.

“This is not the first time that communities have stood up to attempts to exclude people of color from democratic representation, from enforcing the voting rights act here in Central Washington, to the Census. We are determined to make sure the census lives up to its constitutional promise to count everyone who lives here — no exceptions,” said Caty Padilla, Executive Director of Nuestra Casa and member of the Yakama Yakima El Censo 2020 coalition in a prepared statement released by the Washington Census Alliance.

Despite the federal government’s reversal and the uncertainty over the final outcome, local groups continue the push to ensure everyone is counted in King County.

Estela Ortega, Executive Director of El Centro de La Raza, said the organization has been been conducting workshops on census participation at its housing facilities, ESL classes and as part of other regular programming as well.

She said the Supreme Court ruling felt like a victory.

“We were elated because we’ve been working hard and organizing and trying to raise the consciousness around this whole citizenship question,” she said.

But the months-long fight over the citizenship question — combined with the shifts in immigration procedures and policies under the current president — already has instilled skepticism in El Centro’s community.

During a Cinco De Mayo event last month, El Centro printed and distributed handouts listing the ten most important things to know about participating in the census, Ortega said. But people said they didn’t have confidence in the government, because of the question about citizenship.

Ortega had hoped that the Supreme Court’s ruling would be reassuring.

“So the fact that we won on this would be a little more hopeful for people,” she said.