Fear is already affecting McLennan County residents and could cause a significant hit to census participation, regardless of whether a controversial citizenship question makes it into the 2020 census, a local official said.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Department of Justice lawyers indicated Tuesday that the 2020 Census would not include questions about participants’ citizenship status, but Department of Justice lawyers said in court late Wednesday the administration was still pursuing a way to add the question. Local officials said for McLennan County, which had low participation among Hispanics in the 2010 census, the sudden reversal alone could keep people from participating out of fear.
The retreat Tuesday from adding the question and the reversal Wednesday come as the government is running out of time to begin printing the millions of forms, and a Supreme Court ruling continues to bar the administration from including the question, which would ask whether each member of a household is a U.S. citizen.
In Waco, District 2 City Councilman Hector Sabido, who is a member of a 2020 Census Complete Count Committee, said damage has been done, regardless of whether the question makes it into the census.
“Whether the question is on there or not, I think the fear has already been set,” Sabido said. “We are now at a disadvantage because of all the news, uncertainty and back-and-forth that’s happened with the upcoming census.”
In a tweet Wednesday, President Donald Trump wrote that reports that he had given up the fight were “incorrect or, to state it differently, FAKE!”
A White House official declined an Associated Press request to comment on what Trump’s tweet meant and whether it would change the administration’s policy, which is hemmed in by deadlines and legal requirements.
Justice Department lawyers told a federal court Wednesday that they had been “instructed” to try to find a way to add the question, despite statements Tuesday that they were giving up the effort.
Ross, who oversees the census, issued a statement Tuesday saying he had “started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question.”
Former Waco City Manager Dale Fisseler, who co-chairs the local census committee, outlined the direct impact census data has on cities during the committee’s June meeting.
“Some direct things that federal dollars pay for at the city are homelessness initiatives, housing assistance and public health,” Fisseler said. “Almost all those things are funded directly by federal funds. Indirectly, there are things like infrastructure. There are roads, streets and highways, things like that.”
According to the latest census data available, McLennan County is about 27% Hispanic.
“This will definitely have a monumental impact on the number of people that will complete the census,” Sabido said. “It’s going to be felt on a national level.”
Complete census data is historically only released to the general public 72 years after the fact. However, Sabido said even for Hispanic citizens, the fear of retaliation or deportation is a strong deterrent from participating, and the ongoing crisis at the southern border will complicate matters further.
‘Very real fear’
“There is a very real fear in our country right now, especially for people from other countries,” Sabido said. “It’s hard to combat that. When you see people, kids, at the border in cages, there is a crisis going on right now, and I don’t think there’s a way we can fully come back from that.”
The committee reviewed county data that shows where participation in the 2010 census was low and which groups had lower participation rates. Across the board, Hispanic residents, children and homeless people were among the least likely to be counted. City Secretary Esmeralda Hudson, who also serves on the committee, said working with community leaders, churches and nonprofits is an effective way to reach those groups.
“The media, that’s going to be a reminder for those of us who need it,” Hudson said. “For the ones who are scared, don’t know what this is or don’t want to do it, it’s going to be going to one-on-one, coffee with the community or going to their location.”
College students, who may not know whether to file from home or from their university address, are also likely to get left out.