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Oppression Through Census


Donald Trump weaponizing the Census against immigrants is going to be a complete, horrifying disaster. The Census does practice runs. For whatever reason, it’s choice for 2020 is Providence County, Rhode Island (interesting in part because counties are essentially fictions in Rhode Island, as in much of town-based New England). Anyway, as Sam Adler-Bell explores in this great piece focusing on the tiny immigrant-dominated town of Central Falls, this is an unmitigated disaster actively leading to the oppression of immigrants.

Central Falls, in Providence County, Rhode Island, is home to 19,000 people living shoulder to shoulder on 1.2 square miles of hard New England earth. The majority of its residents are Latino: 72 percent speak a language other than English — mostly Spanish, but also Portuguese and French Creole. More than a third are foreign born and slightly less than that live below the poverty line. Nine percent of the population are children under 5 — 43 percent higher than the national average. The median household income is $29,108.

These statistics identify Central Falls as one of the hardest-to-count areas in the country for the purposes of the census. Central Falls is a gateway community, filled with recent immigrants, many undocumented. Some residents live multiple families to a home. For work, they shuttle back and forth across the state line to Massachusetts, where the minimum wage is $0.90 higher. Residency is fluid and impermanent. Heiny Maldonado, the director of Fuerza Laboral, a local workers’ center, said her group’s membership is “constantly changing. So many workers come and go.”

Central Falls, along with the rest of Providence County, is the site of the Census Bureau’s one and only “dress rehearsal” for the 2020 census — the one chance the bureau has to test its systems and methodology ahead of the nationwide count two years from now. In one sense, Providence County is a good choice for a trial run: The obstacles in cities like Central Falls mirror those of the nation. But as civil rights leaders, census experts, and Democrats warn that the Trump administration is sabotaging the 2020 census, mayors and community leaders in Rhode Island fear the 2018 test has been set up to fail.

On Wednesday, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa called an emergency meeting at City Hall with other Providence County mayors, Rhode Island’s attorney general and secretary of state, and community leaders from the ACLU, the NAACP, Common Cause, and the Latino Policy Institute. The agenda was simple: how to salvage the Census Bureau’s trial run.

The day before, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the census, had announced that the Census Bureau would be including a citizenship question on the 2020 questionnaire. The decision confirmed the worst fears of census advocates: The Trump administration would use the census to sow fear among immigrants and deliberately tip the electoral and economic scales toward whiter, more Republican districts. In the next 24 hours, some 12 state attorneys general announced they would sue the administration over the citizenship question.

The question is “an assault on immigrants, Latinos, and the 2020 census,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO Education Fund and a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee since 2000. “Adding a question on citizenship at this time [will] fan the flames of fear and distrust in the census, further risking depressed response rates.”

“The announcement of a citizenship question, on the heels of many anti-immigrant actions by the Trump administration and the underfunding of our census trial run, was throwing a match on gasoline.”

The effects of the new question are already being felt at the survey’s proving ground, in Providence County.

“People are confused, concerned, and outraged,” Diossa told The Intercept. “The announcement of a citizenship question, on the heels of many anti-immigrant actions by the Trump administration and the underfunding of our census trial run, was throwing a match on gasoline.”

Some experts fear the survey is already irreparably compromised. “It is doubtful that the 2020 census will be as accurate and inclusive as 2000 or 2010,” said Ken Prewitt, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, in an interview. As a result of the administration’s decision, Prewitt said, “There will likely be a lower turnout, it will fall disproportionately on hard-to-count communities, who will then suffer from fewer resources than their numbers warrant.”

This is definitely a read-the-whole thing piece. Unfortunately, it is too early to drink.

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