By Camille Erickson, Medill, Immigrant Connect

As snow accumulated on a grey Saturday in November, Byron Sigcho Lopez hit the pavement with a clipboard in hand, knocking on dozens of doors in Chicago’s 25th Ward. “We’re out here talking to residents, inspiring people to come out and vote, and come out to participate. We need everybody to come out and put our children and our communities first,” he said, as snowflakes danced across his face and landed on his eyelashes.

Sigcho Lopez, 35, is running in Chicago’s 2019 aldermanic elections and intends to mobilize as many residents as he can, not just for the elections, but also for civic engagement in the community. In his eyes, energizing his base of majority Latinx and immigrant residents to participate politically on the local and national level is now more necessary than ever.

“It seems like the norm of this administration is [to] use the immigrant community as the scapegoat for all the troubles that it creates itself,” said Sigcho Lopez.

But a single question on the census could drastically undercut Sigcho Lopez’s efforts to amplify the voices and needs of his community. In March 2018, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross officially announced his decision to add a citizenship question to the decennial census in 2020.

To Sigcho Lopez, a longtime community organizer, the addition of a citizenship question will disproportionately affect immigrants and already-marginalized communities by suppressing census participation. “It is not only wrong, but it’s immoral and criminal to basically make this community invisible in a time when we need these resources,” he said.

Census data influences nearly every facet of public life, including the development of infrastructure, job training, schools, hospitals, the Electoral College, congressional seats and more. If allowed, experts predict the question will severely deter immigrant and undocumented families from participating in the census throughout Illinois. An undercount of immigrants would likely translate into a decrease in federal funding dedicated to supporting vulnerable communities, the loss of congressional seats in Illinois and a suppression of immigrant representation in voting and the democratic process.

“The 2020 census is a train wreck that is moving down the rails,” said Arturo Vargas, of NALEO Educational Fund, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization advocating for Latino representation in politics. “We are on track to have the most disastrous census to the detriment of every American.”

While the fate of the citizenship question remains uncertain as the case awaits a hearing in country’s highest court on Feb. 19, organizers across Illinois are already taking action.

The citizenship question has its days in courts

Since Ross’ announcement, dozens of states, cities and organizations have filed lawsuits against the Trump Administration, demanding the removal of the question on the grounds that it could lead to a severe undercount. Critics cite the disproportionate fear and confusion that such a question could cause respondents, particularly among immigrant or undocumented communities.

A letter from the Department of Justice dated Dec. 12, 2017, officially requested the inclusion of the question on the decennial census. The government contended that the data collected from this additional question could be used to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But on Jan. 19, 2018, a memo from U.S. Census Bureau officials recommended that the question not be added, citing the increased cost and high probability of inaccuracy. Although the annual American Community Survey, also conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau but to a much smaller pool of respondents, already asks a question about citizenship, no such question has been included on the decennial census for more than seven decades.

On May 10, 2018, Ross testified in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, declaring that the DOJ had requested that the Department of Commerce add the citizenship question. But documents later revealed that Ross instigated the request, not the DOJ.

The state of New York filed the first lawsuit against the Commerce Department for its decision to add a citizenship question. In addition, 18 states, including Illinois, 10 cities, four counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors joined.

As the Trump administration was attempting to dismiss the suit before the court reached a decision, the Supreme Court on Nov. 16 announced plans to intervene. The highest court will consider what evidence related to the case is permissible in court and if Ross can be deposed. The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the case on Feb. 19, after which the case is likely to be taken under advisement for weeks before a decision is reached and announced.

Neighborhoods like Pilsen are already targeted and in fear

When he was 17 years old, Byron Sigcho Lopez fled to the U.S., escaping widespread economic collapse in Ecuador, and eventually settled in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Sigcho Lopez, said he feels personally targeted as an immigrant by the proposed addition of the citizenship question on the census.

“Ultimately, it will be a devastating attack,” he said. “As an immigrant I have taken this very personally.”

In Pilsen, a predominantly Latino and immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s near Southwest Side where Sigcho Lopez lives and is running for office, the median household income is about $37,000. Many families rely on public services.

He expressed concern that an undercount would result in a reallocation of necessary funding away from already vulnerable communities. A significant undercount could lead to cuts in programs to alleviate hunger and combat housing or employment insecurity that his community still heavily relies on. “When those numbers are not reported adequately and accurately, those resources will simply not get to the areas that need it the most,” said Sigcho Lopez.

What’s more, Sigcho Lopez anticipated that the census question would be one more threat keeping immigrants isolated at home. They would be scared to open their doors and fully participate in their community, he said.

Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at UIC and former Chicago alderman, agreed that adding an additional citizenship question could lead to a severe undercount of immigrants and their families. And the population of immigrants in the state is not insignificant.

The state of Illinois stands to lose

Population data collected by the census is used to determine the number of representatives in districts throughout the state. Undercounting residents could lead to a loss of one or two congressional seats for Illinois. According to the American Immigration Council, 183,000 immigrants live in Illinois. One in every seven residents is an immigrant.

Although a majority of individuals might not mind answering questions about who lives in their household, adding a question about citizenship to the census could pose a problem for some respondents, Simpson said. Any family with members who are non-citizens may fear that providing citizenship information could put their safety in jeopardy. Respondents might be afraid their information could be handed over to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

“It is a justifiable fear given how ICE has conducted raids and begun to actively deport people from neighborhoods,” said Simpson. “Immigrants are afraid that even reporting a minor traffic accident will get them caught up in the criminal justice system [or] deported by ICE,” said Simpson.

The U.S. federal government allocates about $675 billion in funding to local, state and Tribal governments, and the amount of funding distributed to states is determined using data collected through the decennial census.

For every 1 percent of people left uncounted in the last census, the state of Illinois lost an estimated $122 million of federal funding, or $952 per person, according to a report published by  The George Washington Institute for Public Policy.

“None of the [Illinois] congressmen would favor losing congressional seats. It means less clout in Washington and less ability to solve … problems,” said Simpson.

This year, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), an organization that undertook widespread outreach efforts leading up to the last two decennial censuses, worked with several other organizations to win a state line item to fund $1.5 million in census outreach that will be distributed by the Secretary of State Jesse White. Organizations leading census outreach efforts can apply to receive “census participation grants.” In comparison, the state of California allocated $90 million to census outreach in their 2017-18 budget.

Illinois also formed the The Illinois Complete Count Commission in 2017, a group composed of politicians and legal experts working to reach historically hard-to-count populations, including immigrants. But advocates contended that the fight to diffuse fear and mobilize participation will not be easy.

One dilemma is how to counter the escalating distrust and fear

Fred Tsao, ICIRR’s senior policy counsel, voiced concern that encouraging families with immigrants to participate in the census is already challenging enough even without a citizenship question. “[Immigrants] may be concerned with providing information, particularly personal information to any government body, let alone the federal government,” said Tsao.

Tsao said he understands the mistrust felt by immigrant families given that the current administration ran on a platform of hostility towards immigrants. “In that whole context, this census question feels like another threat, another tool to drive immigrants underground, if not to single them out for potential deportation activity,” he said.

Through its outreach, ICIRR emphasized the relative safety of participating in the census. The U.S. Census Bureau is an independent body, and Title 13 of the U.S. Code makes it a felony to divulge personal data obtained by the census, even to government bodies like ICE. But some advocates fear that the current administration could override such a confidentiality protection or use other pretexts to obtain the citizenship information collected by the census.

Tsao said ICIRR will be carefully considering their messaging and outreach as the census approaches. “Certainly, we want people to be counted,” said Tsao. “We want people to not be afraid of the census, but if there are alternatives to answering questions, we want to make sure we are getting the message out regarding those alternatives.” 

In the meantime, Tsao is worried. “There is definitely a lot of anxiety and uncertainty not just among immigrants, but even among advocates like me. I’m grinding my teeth for one thing,” said Tsao in response to the escalating climate of anxiety. Often families of immigrants want nothing more than to live productive and peaceful lives, he said.

Emphasizing the resiliency of immigrant communities, Tsao added, “There is a deep level of concern regarding what the prospects are for continuing their lives.

But many are people of faith, people of strength, and people of great courage.”