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Proposed citizenship question on census raises concern among immigrant advocates

They say such a question in the 2020 census would intimidate people in the country illegally. The Justice Department says the information will help it to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

A coalition of immigrant advocates and progressives on Long Island is raising concerns about a proposal to ask people their citizenship status in the 2020 census, arguing that such a question would intimidate immigrants in the country illegally or facing the expiration of protections against deportation.

The citizenship question, proposed in a Dec. 12 letter from the U.S. Department of Justice to the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, “would have a chilling impact throughout the immigrant community,” said Walter Barrientos, Long Island organizer with Make the Road New York, an advocacy group in Latino working class communities.

A Feb. 27 letter written by that group, the Long Island Civic Engagement Table and the Long Island Progressive Coalition — and signed by 16 other organizations — asks Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department includes the bureau, “to reject the reckless request” and consider the impact.

“Adding a citizenship question would undoubtedly reduce response rates in diverse communities across Long Island, New York and the country, as it will increase fears about whether or not the information will be kept confidential and how it will be used,” the letter states.

Their caution comes at a time when the administration of President Donald Trump has emphasized strict enforcement of immigration laws while curtailing administrative programs that have exempted immigrants from deportation.

Census results, said those groups, have implications beyond immigrants, as redistricting and the allocation of government funds are guided by figures from the decennial count.

The Justice Department said, however, that it was merely asking for reinstatement of a question that had been included in long-form questionnaires until the 2000 census. The department says it seeks the information to better enforce Voting Rights Act provisions by knowing where voters reside. The citizenship issue is confined now to the bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which randomly selects more than 3.5 million households through scientific sampling to gauge population changes.

“Since 1965, every Census, with the exception of the one administered in 2010, has contained a citizenship question that provided data necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters against racial discrimination,” said a statement from Devin O’Malley, a department spokesman. “The Justice Department is committed to free and fair elections for all Americans and has sought reinstatement of the citizenship question on the Census to fulfill that commitment.”

Al Fontenot, Jr., a Census Bureau associate director for Decennial Census Programs, said during a Jan. 26 address that the bureau was “conducting an orderly review of the Department of Justice request” and would submit a final list of questions to Congress by March 31.

The advocates’ concerns are not without merit, said Christopher Sellers, a history professor who heads the Center for the Study of Inequalities, Social Justice and Policy at Stony Brook University.

There has been a push for years to pass legislation in Congress to mandate the citizenship question, Sellers said, as some propose “that undocumented people are not counted in the tallies of where the federal largesse should go” across the United States.

The impact in redistricting and funding could be significant in regions and states with large immigrant populations, like Long Island and New York City.

“There’s a big set of implications not being addressed in the narrow focus on the Voting Rights Act,” Sellers said, adding the resulting undercount of immigrants could be akin to “punishing regions where there are large populations of undocumented.”

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