Elizabeth OuYang spent six long days in November at the federal US District Court in Manhattan to show her opposition to the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
OuYang, a census consultant at the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), says she and other advocates filled the court so “the judge sees the face of the people affected by this.”
The administration, according to a June memo by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, argues that the question is “useful for the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act,” referring to the Civil Rights era law designed to secure minorities’ right to vote.
Critics charge that the move is politically motivated and would suppress immigrant response rates.
“The citizenship question was intended to exclude certain immigrants for partisan gain,” said OuYang.
As the politically-charged legal saga unfolds, NYIC is leading a campaign to ensure an accurate count by orchestrating outreach that would be implemented by community based organizations. The NYIC argues that those organizations’ “earned trust and cultural and language competence” makes them ideal for that role.
But the strategy faces a challenge. Its foot soldiers, groups servicing immigrant communities, are overburdened with more urgent issues.
Experts say uncertainty surrounding the citizenship question and the political climate on immigration makes outreach in immigrant-heavy areas especially pertinent.
The census, which is taken every 10 years, determines how billions of dollars of federal funds should be allocated to localities, and how seats in the House of Representatives and state legislatures should be distributed.
Marc Valinoti, managing attorney for immigration programs at the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights (NMRI), says an undercount in neighborhoods like the South Bronx could deprive already under-resourced communities of federal funding.
Data collected by the CUNY Graduate Center shows that census tracts around The Hub in Mott Haven, Port Morris, Hunts Point and large chunks of Melrose are considered hardest-to-count, meaning they had response rates under 73 percent in 2010.
Valinoti says his organization believes working toward increased response rates in immigrant communities is vital, but is facing “more immediate issues putting our clients at risk.” He added that harsher immigration enforcement has increased the organization’s workload, though it wasn’t able to provide correlating internal data.
To enable community based organizations to conduct census outreach, the Immigration Coalition is lobbying the state for $40 million, an amount determined by a Fiscal Policy Institute study. OuYang says they are currently training community leaders on census outreach only per request, adding that funding would enable them to reach out to organizations and increase trainings.
The Immigration Coalition has launched an online petition in support of its effort, and is planning a “lobby day” in March.
OuYang says they are waiting on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint a complete count committee, which will have to draft the legislation. The Legislature would then have to approve it.
Guillermo Martinez, deputy chief of staff for State Sen. Luis Sepulveda, says “New York would just be penny wise and pound foolish not to do something major.” Sepulveda’s district includes Hunts Point, Longwood and part of Melrose. Martinez added that the senator supports funding community based organizations because they are best positioned to explain the importance of an issue “as abstract as the census.”
While immigration activists across the board support funding community based organizations, there are disagreements on what the immediate course of action should be.
At a panel discussion titled “the Census and the City” at Columbia University on December 3, Yvette Stacey Cumberbatch, former census coordinator with the NYC 2010 census office, said a fully funded census outreach is urgently needed.
But Martinez says outreach could potentially backfire, adding that attempts to inform the public about the unresolved citizenship question could lead to unnecessary fear and confusion.
OuYang disagrees, saying outreach should be ongoing.
But she adds that the long days dealing with the legal saga “is wasting people’s precious time when we could be out there doing outreach.”