As census efforts ramp up this spring, outreach organizations fear that Trump administration officials may try to deport the immigrant communities they need to count.
A network of nonprofits, local governments and advocacy groups has fanned out to help the Census Bureau conduct its decennial count of America’s residents. Some advocates worry the administration, after its failed push to add a citizenship question to the census, may continue on-the-ground immigration enforcement efforts in a departure from previous censuses.
A raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could easily wreck months of outreach efforts, experts said.
“It would be really chilling if the Census Bureau had a partnership event in a community with immigrants and ICE showed up,” said former Census Bureau Director John Thompson. “It could be really, really disruptive of getting a good count for certain population groups.”
This year’s count of roughly 330 million people living in the United States has already begun — the Census Bureau started Tuesday in remote Alaska — but won’t ramp up in earnest until the spring.
Organizations like the Urban Institute have said the fight over the citizenship question, as well as growing government distrust, increase the chances that this year’s census will miss millions of people. That could distort political representation, federal spending and economic growth for a decade, experts have said.
During previous census efforts, ICE and the bureau came to an understanding to keep immigration enforcement from interfering with the count.
“There was an informal agreement that ‘We’re not asking you not to enforce the law but just give us some space to get a good count,’” Thompson said. “There were a few little incidents but nothing major.”
ICE’s predecessor agency, Immigration and Naturalization Services, had an even greater deference to the census. According to congressional testimony and agency statements leading up to the 2010 census, immigration officials agreed to back off raids during the counting process.
The Census Bureau director during the 2000 census, Kenneth Prewitt, said that was one of the norms “shattered” under the current administration. Focus groups conducted by Article 1, a nonprofit Prewitt advises, suggest that fear and mistrust of the government created “an unusually fragile moment” in American history.
Prewitt said the media may bear some responsibility as well: a “media storm” around immigration raids could chill participation among millions of undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families.
“You only have to strike one match to get this to light… There is a lot of fear and mistrust,” he said.
An ICE spokesperson said in an email that the agency had “no plans” to suspend enforcement before or during the census process.
“ICE’s immigration enforcement efforts are focused on targeted individuals illegally present in the U.S. and deportation officers do not perform indiscriminate sweeps in local communities,” the spokesperson said.
The Census Bureau has not asked ICE to stop immigration enforcement in the 2020 census, according to a statement from a spokesman. But the agency emphasized that Census Bureau responses will be kept confidential.
“Our job is to count every person living in the United States once and in the right place, and that’s what we’ll do,” the statement said. “The U.S. Census Bureau is required by law to protect any personal information we collect and keep it strictly confidential. We will not share an individual’s response with immigration or law enforcement agencies.”
The concerns surrounding immigration enforcement have factored into an anti-immigrant atmosphere under the Trump administration, said John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Yang noted that the Census Bureau’s own research shows a rising distrust of government among immigrant communities.
“That has caused a concern about information sharing within communities, especially vulnerable communities such as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities,” he said.
Lizette Escobedo, director of census efforts for the national Latino advocacy group NALEO, said she feels the most concern for the phase when census workers go door-to-door to find people who did not fill out the form on their own.
“While we haven’t heard anything specific, this administration has taken us by surprise in other instances so we aren’t taking chances,” Escobedo said.
NALEO’s national drive has focused on getting respondents to respond on their own, through print, over the phone or online. The Census Bureau estimates about 60 percent of the country will self-respond, pushing millions of people into the door-knocking phase of the count.
“Our take has been, let’s avoid having to figure out what badge someone is wearing at the door by having people self respond,” Escobedo said.
Tanvi Misra contributed to this report.