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The Trump Administration Is Weaponizing The Census. This Is How We Fight Back

Close-up of human hand holding a letter from the Census Bureau regarding the 2020 Census, San Ramon, California, April 24, 2020. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Close-up of human hand holding a letter from the Census Bureau regarding the 2020 Census, San Ramon, California, April 24, 2020. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

On August 21, 2019, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow made a sharp, startling observation. In a news cycle marked by outrageous statements and outlandish claims, Maddow and other members of the news media are increasingly adopting a new maxim when covering the Trump administration: “Watch what they do, not what they say.”

In other words, focus less on plans to purchase Greenland and more on good governance.

This administration’s true project has been most visible in its full-scale attack on immigrants, particularly in the context of Census 2020.

Constitutionally mandated to occur once every 10 years, Census 2020 will determine the number of seats allocated to each state in the House of Representatives, as well as the distribution of over $1 billion in federal funding to over 100 programs. In Massachusetts, our constitution requires the use of the total population count from Census 2020 for state legislative redistricting.

People stand in line at a Census 2020 booth at a farmer's market in Everett, MA on July 24, 2020. Some communities are at risk of being undercounted in the census, because self-response rates so far in the Boston area and other hard-hit communities are only at 50%. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
People stand in line at a Census 2020 booth at a farmer's market in Everett, MA on July 24, 2020. Some communities are at risk of being undercounted in the census, because self-response rates so far in the Boston area and other hard-hit communities are only at 50%. (David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The importance of the census then, cannot be overstated. For the next 10 years, the results of this year’s census will determine the distribution of political power and financial resources throughout the country. The population count could mean the difference between keeping or losing a congressional seat, between a stable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic ruin.

In recognition of that fact, the Trump administration has spent years intertwining citizenship status, immigration enforcement and the census with the intended goal of discouraging immigrants from filling out Census 2020. For example:

*The Department of Commerce fought to add a citizenship question to Census 2020 on the grounds it would support enforcement of the Voting Rights Act — a justification the U.S. Supreme Court called “contrived” and a “distraction.”

*Undeterred by his failure at the Supreme Court, in July 2019, President Trump announced that he was “not backing down” on his effort to determine the citizenship status of the U.S. population and would instead, through Executive Order 13880, command all federal agencies to provide citizenship and immigration data to the Census Bureau.

By filling out Census 2020, our communities will send a clear message to this administration: we are here, we count and we are not going anywhere.

*On July 21, 2020, President Trump issued a presidential memorandum calling for the exclusion of all undocumented immigrants from the congressional apportionment base, stating that states “adopting policies that encourage illegal aliens to enter this country . . . should not be rewarded with greater representation” in Congress. This breathtakingly unlawful act — a direct violation of the constitutional mandate to count all “persons,” not simply citizens or documented immigrants — is being challenged across the country, including right here in Massachusetts by Lawyers for Civil Rights, Haitian-Americans United, the Brazilian Worker Center, Chelsea Collaborative and Centro Presente.

The urgency of these lawsuits is only compounded by the Census Bureau’s announcement on Monday that it will end non-response follow up activities a full month earlier than planned, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the fact that majority-minority communities with large immigrant populations such as Chelsea, Lawrence and Boston remain significantly undercounted.

In an emergency congressional hearing, former Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt testified that this “clear signal of partisan intent” threatens to cast a “long shadow” over the census, akin to that caused by the internment of Japanese-Americans using Census 1940 data.

A children's book is displayed at a U.S. Census walk-up counting site set up for Hunt County in Greenville, Texas, Friday, July 31, 2020. (LM Otero/AP)
A children's book is displayed at a U.S. Census walk-up counting site set up for Hunt County in Greenville, Texas, Friday, July 31, 2020. (LM Otero/AP)

The truth of this administration’s project lies in its actions, not its words. All of the talk about voter fraud, benefit abuse and preserving the rule of law is, in the words of the Supreme Court, a “distraction.” The July 21st memorandum and the rollback of the census timeline may be the most egregious examples, but they are part of an overall pattern: to wrest and withhold political and economic power from immigrant-friendly communities.

Residents of the commonwealth can reject these efforts with an action of our own: completing Census 2020 before the September 30 deadline. The census is short, easy and confidential. All answers are protected by federal law and cannot be shared with anyone, from law enforcement to landlords. After responding, you can help protect your community by encouraging others to fill out the census online, by phone or by mail. This individual and collective action can go a long way in thwarting the administration’s efforts to weaponize the census.

By filling out Census 2020, our communities will send a clear message to this administration: we are here, we count and we are not going anywhere.

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Iván Espinoza-Madrigal Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is the executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

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Lauren Sampson Cognoscenti contributor
Lauren Sampson is a staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

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