Marilyn E. Stephens

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – Last week President Trump signed an Executive Order that would eliminate undocumented people from the 2020 Census count.

“He wants to make sure American citizens have all the political influence and representation afforded by the Constitution,” said John Horstman, Special Advisor to the President.

The U.S. Constitution requires all people living in the U.S. to be counted every 10 years, not just citizens. House democrats and the Census Bureau say Trump’s order is illegal and will face a constitutional court challenge. 

“The President pretends to be able to amend the Constitution by memo. Nothing could be more offensive if it weren’t so ridiculous,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). 

Vargas said Trump intends to “cook the numbers” after the census is completed on October 31. Groups like NALEO successfully blocked Trump from adding a citizenship question to the census. 

“And there is also no question on the 2020 Census form about immigration status,” he said. “Who determines who is undocumented and who is not?” he asked.

There are many immigrants whose status is unclear, for example, DACA recipients, asylum seekers, and thousands of refugees in detention centers. 

“This is an extremely imprecise cooking the numbers by making up an entirely new dataset on which to base the most important element of our democracy and that’s that reapportionment of representation of the House of Representatives,” Vargas said.

The constitution says apportionment shall be based on the number of whole persons and that comes from the census count.

 “And now the administration wants to play with the numbers after the census to come up with a new figure from which to apportion the House. “

John Yang of Asian American Advancing Justice (AAAJ) said Texas, California, and Florida could each lose 3 representatives and some states might retain some they shouldn’t if Trump has his way.

“It’s imperative for our communities to rise above the fear tactics that are being used, rise above the misinformation, and to participate in the census,” Yang said.

Civil rights groups and Census Bureau career professionals are facing a big challenge: reach out to people who haven’t filled out their census form yet. Census response rates are below the national average response of 61 %. Yang estimated the response rate In the Asian community is currently at about 40 %. 

 “We encourage people to respond either by telephone, online, or if they have the paper form to respond by paper. If you do that then depending upon when the Census Bureau sends out the enumerators, they might not come to your door because you’ve already responded,” Yang said.

Census Bureau enumerators will start knocking on doors next month to count people who have not filled out the 2020 Census form. They are not all immigrants either. Many are native born. 

COVID-19 is not helping matters. Yang hopes the Census Bureau will be able to deploy a large enough workforce “with the cultural competence to be able to go into those diverse neighborhoods where response rates are the lowest and be able to knock on doors and to do so in a way that is safe”.

“We know they’re facing some challenges,” Yang said. The bureau has purchased millions of masks for the enumerators to use.

“On August 11th we will start our non-response follow-up. That’s traditionally the largest census operation. We must account for all households in the nation,” said Marilyn E. Stephens, Assistant Regional manager for Southern District, US Census.

From her office in Atlanta, Stephens covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia Louisiana Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina. “In the 2010 Census Atlanta had three states and we did so well they gave us four more,” Stephens said.  

Decidedly upbeat despite the difficulties COVID-19 will cause her enumerators, Stephens has a simple message. “It takes less than 10 minutes for 10 years of service. In order to count you must be counted.”

In many undercounted communities in her district, Stephens has been working local leaders for months, getting them on board to get that message to their constituents.  Florida didn’t allocate money to help the bureau reach residents, but she said city and county officials have stepped up. 

“I think one of most effective campaigns was in December in Pinellas County. They had a great PSA when a commissioner made a call to Santa Claus.” Stephens said the conversation not only resonated in Pinellas County but also spilled over to surrounding counties. A local community organization in Opa-locka in Miami-Dade County, is reaching a predominantly Black population by sending texts to peoples’ phones.  Whatever the means the message is the same: in order to count you must be counted.

This article was brought to you by Ethnic Media Services and the support of the Blue Cross Foundation of California.

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