While the U.S. Supreme Court just temporarily blocked asking about U.S. citizenship in next year’s census, officials who work with Utah immigrants said the proposal already created plenty of damage — and many still fear that participating somehow could lead to deportation.
With an estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants in Utah, missing them and their citizen relatives in the count could cost the state millions of dollars each year in lost federal aid that is distributed through population-based formulas.
“Everything collected by the federal government or any government agency is being seen as something that might jeopardize someone’s family — especially families with mixed status,” where some are citizens and others are not, said Ze Min Xiao, director of Salt Lake County’s Office of New Americans.
“The damage has been done,” she said, adding that she and other officials face high hurdles to convince immigrants that answering the census is safe and will not jeopardize them.
The Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily threw out the citizenship question, ruling assertions by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross that it would help enforce civil rights laws seemed disingenuous — and that he appeared to push it for political reasons.
It sent the question back to lower courts and blocked asking the question for now. The Census Bureau has said it must decide this week whether to include the question before forms are sent to printers — and the question is now blocked on the verge of that deadline. However, the Census Bureau previously said it may be able to extend the deadline as far as Oct. 31.
“Giving Secretary Ross a ‘mulligan’ to figure out the right way to say what his intention is for including the citizenship question is very problematic,” said former state Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck. “This leaves traditionally undercounted communities hanging, further eroding the work that so many local officials are doing to assure a complete 2020 Census count.”
Activist Josie Valdez, a former vice chairwoman of the Utah Democratic Party, also charged the citizenship question “originated in an attempt by conservatives in the Republican Party to suppress” Democratic voters by undercounting their areas before new political boundaries are redrawn, and also to hurt funding for social programs that impact immigrant communities.
“Fear has escalated to a panic level in the Latino community,” she said because of the census controversy combined with President Donald Trump’s threat for massive roundups of undocumented immigrants and reports about poor treatment of immigrant children at the border.
“People are just afraid to be in public places where they perceive that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] might be at the door.” She said many even fear going to church, shopping for groceries or visiting health clinics — so census forms naturally also create fear.
The census citizenship question was seen as “a ‘show me your papers’ question,” said Deyvid Morales, a Utahn who created an app explaining immigrant rights. He notes he used to help present workshops on such rights, but people now fear attending them “because they worry ICE might be waiting outside the door.”
Morales said immigrants worry that participating in the census — even without the citizenship question — could help gather “information that will be used to put little red pins on houses that have undocumented immigrants living in [them].”
He is happy the question was removed for now and hopes more immigrants and others will participate. He said that would help all Utahns, “even Trump supporters.”
“We’re all in the same state. We’re in the same cities. We share the same roads. For us not to be counted is really going to hurt the way that we live. So this question being thrown out is a victory for everybody,” he said.
Xiao said a big benefit of eliminating the citizenship question is that it gives more Latino leaders confidence to promote participating in the census as safe. She said many had deferred such assistance waiting to see what would happen with the question.
Without trusted voices in the community backing them, advocates won’t be able to convince immigrants and others to participate, Xiao said. “This will give them more assurance to participate.”
Luis Garza, executive director of the immigrant-assisting group Comunidades Unidas, said he is one who hesitated to promote the census as long as it contained a citizenship question. Now, he says, “It’s important for all of us to participate. It will benefit our communities” by making more federal money and fair representation possible.
He also called for the state to appropriate money now to improve census turnout. It has set aside no such money so far, although officials have said they intend to do so. California, in contrast, has appropriated $157 million.
“This creates an opportunity for the state of Utah and our local elected officials to step up and invest in the census to make sure everyone is counted,” he said. “It is needed to help repair that damage that has been done to the community.”
However, Gov. Gary Herbert in his monthly news conference Thursday said officials may wait until next year’s regular legislative session to come up with the money. That may be too late — since the session runs until March, when the census count will begin.
“I think some money has been set aside,” Herbert said, expressing some uncertainty. “Whether it’s adequate or not, as we get closer to the census next year we’ll probably have an opportunity to beef up that fund and make sure that we have adequate funds to do an appropriate census evaluation in Utah.”
The state budget approved included no money for the census, despite efforts by some Democrats to add it.
Meanwhile, Valdez also said she and other Latino leaders now will push hard for people to participate.
“I would ask them to answer the census because of how it does impact positively for their children and their future. I will work to curtail or lower the fears they are having,” she said.
Reporter Ben Woods contributed to this report.