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Minnesota census workers reassure the undocumented as Trump memo renews fears

Mónica Hurtado of Voices for Racial Justice said she will continue telling people about the laws that protect their privacy and the importance of completing the census.

President Donald Trump
Early last week, President Donald Trump ordered the Secretary of Commerce to exclude unauthorized immigrants from data to be used in the upcoming process of redrawing congressional districts.
REUTERS/Leah Millis

Before Mónica Hurtado could persuade anyone to volunteer personal information for the 2020 census, she had to be persuaded herself. And three years ago, she was a big skeptic.

“We know how deep is the distrust of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities of big systems,” said Hurtado, the racial justice and health equity organizer at Voices for Racial Justice. At the time, it became apparent that the Trump administration was intent on adding a citizenship question to the census, which added to her hesitancy. “So because of our own fears, we said there’s no way we are going to participate in this work.”

Mónica Hurtado
Mónica Hurtado
Hurtado said she now views the census as a tool for “liberation” for marginalized communities to get funding and better political representation, which she worked to convey to community members wary of being asked about their citizenship status. 

Now, she is once more seeing similar fears around community safety play out. Early last week, President Trump ordered the Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the Census Bureau, to exclude unauthorized immigrants from data to be used in the upcoming process of redrawing congressional districts. His July 21 memo says, “For the purpose of the reapportionment of Representatives following the 2020 census, it is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status under the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

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It was a move that may again serve to discourage immigrants from filling out the census.  

“People, not having the time to understand the whole piece and understanding that, yes, the memo is out there but what is the real impact to them?” said Hurtado. “What are the data sets that the government can use to remove what they are calling undocumented people from the districts?”

At least four suits filed against Trump administration

It’s unclear whether the Census Bureau can actually make those exclusions in time for apportioning congressional seats at the end of the year. Experts say it’s an enormous task for the Census Bureau to accurately determine who in the country does not have proper documentation. Legal scholars also doubt the constitutionality of the directive, and at least four lawsuits from local governments and other organizations have been filed against the Trump administration over the order.

“There is no data source that would allow the administration to carry out this memo. The data just don’t exist; there’s no list of people who are undocumented and living in Minnesota,” said Susan Brower, the state demographer.

Susan Brower
Susan Brower
The position of the state demographer’s office remains the same: Everyone in Minnesota must be counted, Brower said. Enumerators from the Census Bureau will also be following up with all households that have not yet responded in mid-August.

“It’s my expectation that [determining who is undocumented] will not be something that the Census Bureau can operationalize in the amount of time that it has left,” Brower said. “But it may have an impact just through the mechanism of raising fears of people who are already hesitant to respond to the census.” 

The fear may complicate getting households with undocumented residents to answer, likely leading to an undercount of already hard-to-count populations. 

Rodolfo Gutierrez, the executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research (HACER), a research nonprofit, has spent several years building connections with the Latino community throughout southern Minnesota. 

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Undocumented immigrants who live and work there worry that answering the census will expose them and their relatives to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Gutierrez, who has a background in demography. Immigrant advocacy groups also caution households not to answer questions from government officials who come knocking, a caution that may carry over to the census. 

Further, the uncertainty caused by discussions about adding a citizenship question has not yet faded.

“Just being asked, are you a citizen? What does that mean? Who’s going to be looking at that question? And what is the purpose of that question? … That is still resonating,” Gutierrez said, citing that he still gets calls about whether the census form asks for citizenship information.

Supreme Court blocked citizenship question

“We need to explain no, it was removed, it was not accepted, or whatever happened. And then they are still pretty uncomfortable,” Gutierrez said. The Supreme Court blocked the citizenship question from appearing on the 2020 census last year, writing that the Trump administration’s reason for adding it seemed “contrived.”

Rodolfo Gutierrez
Rodolfo Gutierrez
If undocumented immigrants were to be excluded from the decennial population count, it would cause massive uncertainty in the data, demographers say. Pew Research Center estimated that there were 95,000 undocumented immigrants in Minnesota in 2016, making up 2 percent of the total state population.

Depending on the variables the Census Bureau uses to approximate who is undocumented, citizens who live with unauthorized non-citizens could get excluded as well, Gutierrez said. Over 64,000 U.S. citizens in Minnesota lived in mixed-status households between 2010 and 2014, according to the Center for American Progress.

Minnesota congressional seat in the balance

The outcome of the census will determine whether Minnesota hangs onto its eighth seat in the U.S. House. Projections by Pew Research Center show the state would keep its seat if apportionment did not include undocumented immigrants, while California, Florida and Texas would each lose a seat. 

Estimates have Minnesota losing a seat by about 20,000 to 23,000 people, but that’s a number the state could still make up, according to Brower. Apportionment will also depend on how other states do, and even in the middle of the pandemic Minnesota is leading the nation in response rates. 

“It looks like it’s possible that we could lose a seat, but it’s not a foregone conclusion because it’s not such a huge gap that we could never make it up,” Brower said.

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Still, community organizations that have been working to count all groups worry that the exclusion would leave out the voices of people of color when it comes time to make policy decisions. 

Hurtado said she will continue telling people about the laws that protect their privacy and the importance of completing the census.

“I think everybody benefits if we are counted, because we will have the resources, the political representation to create good policies that improve the lives of the ones that are being left behind. And we will not go through what we went through with the George Floyd murder.”