Utah Latinos warn that a census question about citizenship may cost the state, as the Supreme Court weighs its constitutionality

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau) The 2020 Census is now a year away. Utah lawmakers decided not to spend any state money to help prepare for it, which potentially may affect accuracy and how much Utah receives in federal grants.

Utah Latino leaders say tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants, refugees and other new arrivals may avoid next year’s census, and subsequently cost the state millions in federal funds, over their fears about one question — are they citizens of this country?

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday about whether the administration may include that controversial question. Utah leaders say trust has already been damaged by simply proposing it.

“It’s really a big question mark for many of us in the immigrant community about just how that information may be used by the government,” said Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas [Communities United].

Current law prevents the Census Bureau from providing personal data to anyone or any other agency — including immigration enforcement. But during World War II, Congress gave the government personal census information, which was used to put people of Japanese descent into internment camps.

After the war, the law was changed back to keep responses confidential. Margo Anderson, an emeritus University of Wisconsin professor who has written histories about the census, said the data “has been pretty impregnable since then.”

“We are worried about how this information might be used,” Garza said, “especially with this current administration, which does have a very clear anti-immigrant agenda.”

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the question was added at his direction after he received a letter from the Department of Justice that said the data was needed to properly enforce civil rights laws.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jose V. Borjon, the Consul of Mexico in Utah, left, alongside Luis Garza, Executive Director at Comunidades Unidas, announce the 2017 edition of the Latin American Weeks of Health initiative on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

Studies estimate that Utah has between 80,000 and 100,000 undocumented immigrants living here — and missing them in the once-every-decade count could cost the state big money in federal funding that uses population-based formulas. The Constitution requires counting all people living in the country, not just citizens.

Garza said undocumented immigrants are not the only ones who may skip the census because of a citizenship question.

People with green cards, refugees, students here on visas and “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, whom the Barack Obama administration had allowed to stay — may all worry that answering the census somehow could be used by the Trump administration to remove them from the country, Garza said.

Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former legislator who is on the state’s Complete Count Committee for the census, says even some citizens fear answering the question.

“Often they have others in their household who are of mixed status,” some who are citizens and some who are not, she said. "They worry that by disclosing certain information, they might be jeopardizing other members of their family.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rebecca Chavez-Houck asks a question in the Utah House of Representatives during a special session on July 18, 2018.

Chavez-Houck adds there is even some talk of encouraging everyone in the Latino community “not to answer the citizenship question to kind of show solidarity” with marginalized groups.

She said she has seen no serious work to organize such a move — and hopes it can be avoided and the citizenship question rejected.

Garza and Chavez-Houck say merely proposing the citizenship question has done damage, regardless of whether the courts allow it to remain.

“Whether the question makes it or not, people have already heard about it” and it has created fear and mistrust, Garza said.

“I appreciate the fear and it can’t be discounted,” Chavez-Houck said. “If the court rules that the question will not be included … then I think that we have time to inform” people about why they should participate, including to gain more federal funding.

Evan Curtis, a planning coordinator in the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget who is co-chairman of Utah’s Complete Count Committee, acknowledges the citizenship question has created problems with trust that could affect census accuracy.

He said the state is working with Latino groups, churches and refugee organizations to try to overcome that. “We want to make sure that we can do whatever we possibly can to help them understand that the census is safe and would be beneficial for us as a state if they participate.”

Curtis said the state wants trusted voices to convey that message. While Garza said Comunidades Unidas is telling people about the benefits of participation, it is still waiting to see how the citizenship question is resolved before deciding how much more it may do and what it may say.

Garza said even if the citizenship question disappears, subsequent education efforts here may be hampered because the Utah Legislature appropriated no money to help encourage census participation. In contrast, California is spending $154 million on that — but Utah has chosen to rely only on federal efforts.