Trial Test Indicates Noncitizens Plan To Avoid 2020 Census

May 8, 2018
Originally published on May 8, 2018 9:36 am
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The head of the United States Census Bureau faces questions today. Members of Congress will ask about a new question on the 2020 census. It's a question many local leaders have said they dislike. It asks people about their citizenship. And in the town we visit next, many noncitizens are planning to avoid being counted at all. Here's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: In an old New England town like Central Falls, R.I., every national census counts because every dollar counts. Just ask Mayor James Diossa.

JAMES DIOSSA: I am the first Latino mayor of Central Falls, R.I., the second in the state of Rhode Island.

WANG: Diossa recently won state funds to clean up the city's only two athletic fields. The city found lead, arsenic and other industrial contamination in the soil.


DIOSSA: Thank you, Director Coit.


WANG: He says the city got the money using census numbers.

This is the same field you played on when you were a kid.

DIOSSA: Yes, played soccer, which is the only sport my father taught me.

WANG: No baseball...

DIOSSA: No baseball.

WANG: No football.

DIOSSA: No football. Can't shoot a basketball, but I can kick the ball.

WANG: Diossa says he hopes Central Falls kids keep kicking the ball here just like he did growing up. To make sure there's enough funding for the city's fields, roads and schools, he'll need all of Central Falls to be counted for the 2020 census. It's a majority-Latino city whose Latino residents have helped bolster the entire state of Rhode Island.

GABRIELA DOMENZAIN: It's the elephant in the room.

WANG: This is Gabriela Domenzain. She directs the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University in Providence.

DOMENZAIN: This is why our state has continued to have the representation it has at the federal level because Latinos, just like they do many places in the United States, are making up for the fact that folks are getting older and not having children.

WANG: But Domenzain and other leaders in the state are worried. They're closely watching a test run of the 2020 census. It's taking place right now in Central Falls and other parts of Providence County. The Census Bureau says it's going as planned. But Domenzain says many Latino residents are refusing to be counted for it. And this test does not include a citizenship question.

DOMENZAIN: People are scared.

WANG: The Latino population here includes longtime residents - both citizens and noncitizens, documented and not. And many are afraid of giving their information to the federal government. The Justice Department requested the citizenship question to be added to the census. It says it needs a better count of U.S. citizens to enforce the Voting Rights Act's protections against racial discrimination. Gabriela Domenzain is not convinced.

DOMENZAIN: They're putting a citizenship question on the census to further inflict harm - emotional and psychological - on a community that they have proved time and time again they don't want here.

WANG: The Census Bureau has asked all households about U.S. citizenship before, but the last time was back in 1950. Research by the Census Bureau suggests that asking about citizenship now could lead to an undercount. More than two dozen states and cities, including Central Falls, have filed lawsuits to try to remove the question from the census forms. Regardless of what happens, many undocumented immigrants like Humberto are avoiding the census.

HUMBERTO: If they're illegal, that letter is just like, it's not my concern, right? I'll put it on the recycling. That's what I'm going to do with it.

WANG: We're calling Humberto by a family name because he's afraid of being deported. By law, the Census Bureau cannot disclose information that can identify individuals - not to the public and not to other government agencies. But it can share data down to the neighborhood level about specific demographic groups. Humberto says he doesn't want to take the risk.

HUMBERTO: Because after you answer that question saying that you are not a citizen, you're going to be looking behind you all the time.


WANG: Mayor James Diossa drives through Central Falls. As the 2020 census draws nearer, he's facing a potential crisis. Low census numbers could translate into less federal and state funding. Central Falls has already lived through a turbulent past. Globalization shut down its factories and textile mills, and the city went bankrupt. Still, for the past 50 years, Diossa says, Latino residents have played a large part in Central Falls. They've helped keep this city going.

DIOSSA: Gallo de Oro - Mexican food. El Rancho...

WANG: Were these kinds of businesses around when you were growing up?

DIOSSA: Yeah, many of them.

WANG: Central Falls is one of the most densely populated places in the country.

DIOSSA: As you can see, a lot of three-, two-tenement housing - one, two, three houses on one parcel.

WANG: Many of the buildings here could be mistaken for single-family homes until you spot the clusters of mailboxes hanging beside each door. Before Diossa was elected mayor, he knocked on many of those doors.

DIOSSA: We want these folks to participate. We want them to get counted.

WANG: There's a risk to that.

DIOSSA: There's a big risk, a big risk, absolutely.

WANG: Diossa says he's stuck. He understands why many in Central Falls do not want to give their information to the Census Bureau, and yet he knows he needs that same information to run his city. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Central Falls, R.I.


INSKEEP: And our producer Marisa Penaloza contributed to this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.