In the 21 years since Jeanette Vizguerra came to Colorado from Mexico, she has raised a family, started a business and withstood six efforts by federal immigration authorities to deport her. But a recent plan by the U.S. Census Bureau has shaken her confidence.
For the first time in 70 years, the U.S. government plans to ask all households in the 2020 Census to record the citizenship status of every person in their home.
“For me, it’s very bad, this question,” said Vizguerra, 46, the activist mother of four who sought refuge from immigration authorities in the basement of a Denver church last year.
Three of Vizguerra’s children are U.S. citizens. The fourth is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Vizguerra left the church sanctuary last year after receiving help from lawmakers in Washington, D.C. that has enabled her to continue fighting her deportation in immigration court.
Vizguerra is among tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Colorado—and millions nationally—facing an uncertain future under the Trump Administration. “I will be scared to put this information on the [census] form. Other people will be scared, too, that the government will share this information with other agencies, and police or immigration will come to our homes,” she said.
The citizenship inquiry has also rattled Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who strongly opposes putting the question on the decennial census. “The Constitution says the whole number of persons in each state should be counted,” Hickenlooper said. “It does not say the whole number of citizens.”
If thousands of immigrants—fearing deportation for themselves, family members or friends, or simply concerned about confidentiality—decide not to participate in the 2020 mandatory survey, it will skew the accuracy of the count of who is living in Colorado, and have far-reaching implications.
“The concern is that we will see an undercount,” the governor said. “That would impact the amount of money we receive from the federal government for critical funding for transportation, human services and more.”
The Census Scientific Advisory Committee, a panel of experts that advises the Census Bureau, has said the decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 survey was based on “flawed logic” that could threaten the accuracy and confidentiality of the population count.
“It doesn’t matter how much the Census Bureau says ‘we will keep your data confidential,’ the Twitter commentary is about how the citizenship question is going to be used to target individuals who are not here legally,” said panel member D. Sunshine Hillygus, PhD, a professor of political science at Duke University, “and that’s going to be an incredible challenge that the Census Bureau is going to face in the coming years.” Hillygus made the comments during the March 29 meeting of the committee.
Colorado is among the nation’s fastest growing states, said state Demographer Elizabeth Garner. In 2010, Colorado’s population was just over 5 million people. By 2017, it had gained an estimated 578,000 more people, according to forecasts derived from American Community Survey (ACS) annual samples.
Hickenlooper joined 19 Democratic and independent state attorneys general in sending a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, opposing the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) request to add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census. A group of states and cities have also sued the Trump administration to try to stop the question.
The DOJ’s justification for the inquiry is that in order to more effectively enforce the Voting Rights Act, it needs “census block level citizenship voting age population data.”
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman agrees with Ross that the citizenship question on the 2020 Census is “necessary to provide complete and accurate data.” She joined other Republican attorneys general from Oklahoma and Louisiana in voicing support.
“The goal of the census is to produce as accurate a picture as possible of the makeup of our vast and diverse country so that all people that live within our borders can be appropriately represented,” Coffman said.
The Constitution requires that the government count every person living on American soil every 10 years. Population numbers, collected since 1790, determine how many congressional seats each state gets and help define congressional district boundaries, as well as state legislative districts, school districts and voting precincts. The census count is also used to divvy up more than $675 billion in federal funding to the states, and serves as the foundation for research on public health and other subjects.
Colorado relies heavily on federal dollars to fund public health and safety, education, agriculture and other programs. Overall, federal funding made up 30 percent of Colorado’s $27.8 billion general fund budget in 2017.
As for apportioning political power, because the U.S. House of Representatives is a fixed size—435 seats—states with the fastest growing populations gain seats in Congress, while states that are not growing as fast lose seats. Colorado picked up its seventh seat in Congress after the 2000 Census, and given the 2017 population estimates, the state stands to gain an eighth seat if population growth continues at the same pace until 2020.
“Redistricting is going to be a huge component in Colorado,” said Garner. “We are definitely in line to receive an eighth seat if we get a good [census] count.”
Approximately one in 10 Coloradans—537,000 in 2015—are immigrants, meaning they were born in other countries, according to the American Immigration Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. that provides legal services to immigrants. Fewer than 200,000 are believed to be undocumented immigrants, mostly concentrated in the Denver metro area, based on numbers from various research groups.
The majority of migrants to Colorado, both living here legally and undocumented, are from Mexico. Nationally, there were an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States as of 2014.
Denver immigration attorney Alyssa Reed believes the 2020 Census, with the citizenship question included, will exacerbate fears already widespread in immigrant communities, particularly if census workers knock on the doors of people who don’t respond, which is common practice.
“I am positive that many, many immigrants are not going to respond to the 2020 Census out of fear… that the government does maybe have nefarious purposes… and maybe will use that information against them,” Reed said. “Communities with a lot of immigrants, even legal immigrants who might be hesitant to answer that question, are going to be very much under-represented.”
The underlying fear, Garner said, is that “the information could potentially be used like it was in the 1940s with the internment camps and Japanese-Americans.” During World War II, Congress passed the Second War Powers Act of 1942, repealing federal confidentiality protections against disclosing personal census information. It allowed the Census Bureau to help the government round up Americans of Japanese ancestry—in Colorado and six other states—into internment camps by releasing block-by-block data on where they were living. (The bureau maintained that it did not provide microdata that would have disclosed names and other individual information, per se.) After the 9/11 terror attacks, the Census Bureau also shared zip code information on Arab Americans with the Department of Homeland Security.
The Census Bureau’s website says it is unlawful to disclose “personally identifiable information” for 72 years after a decennial census. Title 13 of the U.S. code specifies “Personal information cannot be used against respondents by any government agency or court.”
The U.S. Department of Commerce announced in March that the citizenship question on the 2020 Census form would use the same wording as what is already used in the ACS, which asks respondents to check one of five categories to describe their citizenship status. Three categories apply to people who are U.S. citizens at birth, one deals with naturalized U.S. citizens and the fifth category is a checkbox “No, not a U.S. citizen.”
Garner explained that the question as phrased “does not get at the legality of people’s non-citizen status here. Non-citizens can still be legal in the United States.” Legal permanent residents, foreigners with work permits or student visas, for example, are not citizens but live here legally.
Vizguerra’s attorney, Hans Meyer, said the citizenship question “could more accurately help identify populations, as is the census goal.” But, “in the current anti-immigrant and nativist political environment of the Trump Administration, such a question is almost certain to drive people away from participation—and perhaps that’s the true goal.”
Major news outlets have reported that civil rights advocates and Democrats fear an undercounting of key groups could in turn shift political representation, power and federal dollars away from states with large immigrant populations.
Georges C. Benjamin, MD, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, said he is “very worried” that fear and distrust could drive a low participation rate among immigrant communities in the 2020 Census, creating a ripple effect that will exacerbate health inequities in vulnerable communities longer-term.
“In public health, it is critical to get accurate information on the whole population,” Benjamin said. “If we don’t know the numbers, we don’t know what’s out there and we can’t plan for it.”
Immigrant communities could end up with more health problems—depression, anxiety, chronic diseases—and fewer programs vital to their well-being, Benjamin said, adding: “At the end of the day, it results in furthering the disproportionate problems we have with health equity in the country.”