Local community leaders express concern over proposed census immigration question
May 4, 2018

By Adam Kivel

If President Donald Trump’s and his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s proposed addition of a question to the 2020 census regarding participants’ citizenship status were to happen, Chicago communities could be affected negatively in a variety of ways, experts say.

As the Census Bureau deliberates the question’s inclusion, local organizations and experts are expressing their concerns that it could lead to a diminished response rate, a resulting decrease in representation at the national level, and even an increase of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in communities.

In today’s political climate, they argue, a government employee arriving at a door to take down a person’s address and ask whether he or she is an immigrant (whether undergoing a legal immigration process or not) would lead to fear and an unwillingness to respond. Some even suggest this is an intentional outcome.

“Within the current environment, it is obvious that this is a politically loaded decision,” said John J. Betancur, professor of Urban Planning and Policy at the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). “Not only does it continue the witch-hunting politics of the anti-immigrant lobby, but it attacks the states and cities with large numbers of immigrants.”

According to the American Immigration Council, nearly two million immigrants live in Illinois, making up nearly 15% of the population. In addition, a 2014 report from Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimated that 183,000 undocumented immigrants live in Chicago alone.

Tilt toward Republican areas

Those numbers are even more concentrated in neighborhoods on the city’s Near South and Near West sides. A census that underrepresents minority groups and areas with a high proportion of immigrants could funnel funding to and weight elections in favor of historically Republican cities and districts with smaller immigrant populations.

“This is a way to make invisible certain issues and certain demographics,” said Byron Sigcho, executive director of Pilsen Alliance, a social justice organization committed to developing grassroots leadership in the community.

In fact, some claim that the question actively targets largely Latino communities such as Pilsen—a feeling informed in part by the administration’s stance on building a wall on the Mexican border and urging an increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

“Notice for instance that there are many undocumented Eastern Europeans in the midst of white communities, as well as undocumented Africans, but those communities are not raided,” Betancur said.

Dick Simpson, professor of political science at UIC and a former Chicago alderman, further notes these are often the communities most affected by their representation. “This would impact all neighborhoods, but it would be particularly problematic in neighborhoods needing the most services, notably those that are poorer and those with large numbers of immigrants,” he said.

Decreased representation

An indirect impact on these communities comes from redistricting based on census results. The census’s raw population count determines how many representatives each state sends to the United States House of Representatives; Illinois’s declining population could lead to fewer congressional seats, and further reducing a reported population number through immigrants going uncounted could cut Chicagoans’ representation at the national level even more, Simpson explained.

“First of all, it brings less federal dollars back to Chicago if we have an undercount because many federal grants are dependent either upon population or low-income population,” he said. “We know we’re going to lose at least one seat in the House because of our lost population in Illinois, and a severe undercount could mean losing two seats. Representation in Congress is important not only for big legislative issues but for simple services such as facilitating visas, citizenship, and Social Security.”

On the national scale, a lawsuit brought by 18 attorneys general, six cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors called New York v. United States Department of Commerce aims to prevent including the citizenship question. The suit argues against the question as a matter of policy and claims the proposed idea did not follow the census’s standard procedures when submitted.

While the City of Chicago is one of the plaintiffs in the suit, Sigcho and other community leaders expect to see plenty of community-level response as well. “Communities like Pilsen will continue to pressure our congressmen and senators to make sure that, at a federal level, every pressure is exerted to make sure that this question is stopped before it starts,” he said.

U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) said, “A census citizenship question would reverse decades of precedent and undoubtedly result in an unfair and inaccurate count. Politics has no place in the census, but this administration will stop at nothing to push its anti-immigrant agenda. Nothing.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office said that they are not commenting on this issue.

For more from the American Immigration Council, log on to www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org. To contact Betancur, email betancur@uic.edu. For Senator Durbin, log on to www.durbin.senate.gov. For ICE, log on to www.ice.gov. For the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, log on to www.icirr.org. Log on to www.thepilsenalliance.org for the Pilsen Alliance. To contact Simpson, email simpson@uic.edu.