On July 21, 2020 President Trump issued a bombshell memorandum calling for ‘illegal aliens’ to be excluded from the final census count when determining how many congressional seats are allotted to each state.

The memo triggered a firestorm of protests and lawsuits filed by immigrants’ rights groups, Common Cause and the ACLU, as well as legal challenges led by a New York state-led coalition of 20 states.

In the memo, the President claimed the authority to block undocumented immigrants from the apportionment base, an assertion that the ACLU called “a lawless attempt” to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count.

The memo drew condemnation from civil rights groups who called the order  ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘xenophobic’, and promised to fight the policy to ensure that everyone, regardless of immigration status, understands they count in the census.

This view was echoed by a panel of civil rights advocates at an ethnic media briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services on July 24.

The memo suggests that undocumented communities will not count in apportionment.” said John Yang, AAJC President and Executive director. “That’s unconstitutional!”

Arturo Vargas, Executive Director of National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) described the Trump policy to erase undocumented immigrants from the count as an attempt to “cook the numbers.” and  “make a new data sets”.

There is no citizenship question on the census nor does it ask for the legal status of immigrants, and neither can the Census Bureau share any personal information about respondents with ICE or law enforcement. Given that there is no way to determine the exact number of undocumented immigrants in the census count, any exercise in removing them after the count will have to rely on estimates that are likely to be imprecise, Vargas explained.

As outreach efforts were scrapped to comply with federal guidelines on COVID-19, the census has faced significant challenges in completing a fair and accurate count. “Political interference makes it more complicated,” said Vargas, a census expert in Latino demographic trends and redistricting.

Census2020 has invested heavily in promoting the message that everyone counts in the census – non-citizens included. But the Trump memo could undermine that effort.

“The memo has same messaging effect as the citizenship question,” noted Nestor Lopez, an economic development analyst and census organizer from Hidalgo County, South Texas.

The ACLU lawsuit challenged the order as “a discriminatory attack on immigrants and immigrant communities, and particularly immigrant communities of color. It is intended to … send the message that they do not count.”

That message could dissuade immigrants who already fear a citizenship question from participating in the census, and threaten the accuracy of the count. This would result in the loss of millions in federal funds for these vulnerable communities and disproportionate representation at the US Congress.

Hidalgo County in South Texas is a sobering example of what could happen to a community that does not respond to the census. Lopez, who has led census outreach efforts there, said that this impoverished corner of Texas has a large undocumented population that has been historically undercounted for the last two decades.

As a result of its inadequate health and welfare infrastructure and overwhelmed hospitals, Hidalgo County has become a COVID-19 hotspot, where, health officials say the virus is wreaking havoc on communities. Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine told CNN that “We had 34 deaths in the last 24 hours in not a very large county, so South Texas is just getting hit incredibly hard.”

Last week Hidalgo County officials threatened to criminally prosecute people who don’t quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

In Texas, which has not allocated funding for census activities, Lopez said that Hidalgo County was relying on ‘boots on the ground”  trusted messengers, non-profits and sound trucks to spread the word before stay-at-home orders derailed their efforts.

COVID-19 has disrupted census operations making it an uphill battle” to reach key demographics, said Lopez, adding that “unfortunately, COVID-19 is exposing what not responding to census will do.”

In a final push to encourage people to respond to the census amid coronavirus restrictions, census advocates are improvising new ways to coax participation out of marginalized communities.

“You only Count If You’re Counted,” is the essence of census outreach PSAs being shared on airwaves and utility bills and through faith-based organizations, said  Marilyn E. Stephens, of the Census Bureau, describing how her office is tackling census messaging for Southern District of the US.

“The goal has not changed for a fair and accurate count of all our communities,” reiterates Yang.

The possibility of losing congressional seats and federal funding drives advocates trying to rise above the fear tactics and misinformation around the census, and combat divisive messaging from the Trump administration in its attempt to intimidate immigrant communities from participating.

Pro-immigrant groups are  taking that challenge to court. “Today, we are sending a clear message: All communities will be counted,” stated Theo Oshiro, deputy director of Make the Road New York. “We will keep organizing and fighting to ensure our communities receive the representation and resources that we deserve. We urge the court to stop this reckless memo in its tracks.”

“Every person counts in the census,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, who successfully argued the U.S. Supreme Court case blocking the Trump administration from placing a citizenship question on the 2020 census

“Undocumented immigrants are people — and nothing President Trump does or says changes that fact.”

Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents.

Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at desicollective.media. She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...