Local activists are concerned that a controversial question about citizenship that could appear on the 2020 US Census questionnaire would be used to deport people.

“The Trump administration wants to remake the composition of America according to their racist principles,” said local immigration activist Pablo Alvarado. “Obviously, they want less people of color. This was clearly stated by the president when he called immigrant countries ‘shithole’ countries.”

The controversy surrounds the Trump administration’s plans to include the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”

Some believe that even if the question is not used to deport immigrants, the fear of potential exposure caused by the question could still have a devastating impact by causing a sizeable undercount. That, in turn, could reduce federal allocations by billions of dollars for numerous programs around the country, cost states in the number of seats they can hold in the House of Representatives, and determine how many Electoral College votes each state gets.

“We could lose some federal dollars that are distributed based on population,” said City Manager Steve Mermell. “In the bigger picture, there is a chance that California could lose a seat in the House of Representatives if the state is not counted properly.”

“It will so severely damage the accuracy of the census that six states are at risk of losing a seat in the House of Representatives — California, Florida, Texas, Arizona, Illinois and, of course, New York,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Locally, the census is used to adjust and sometimes redraw local City Council and Pasadena Unified School District boundaries to make sure the city is complying with federal voting rights laws.

In 1993, local political district lines were redrawn to create a district which increased voting opportunities for primarily Latino residents living in an enclave which later became District 5. This was an area of the city which the 1990 census revealed was 27 percent Latino.

Somewhat ironically Bill Crowfoot — who is white but grew up in Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish fluently — captured the council seat in the newly created district. His field representative Victor Gordo, who is Latino and speaks Spanish, is the district’s current council representative. Overall, Latinos account for about a third of the city’s population.

“There are definitely going to be hurdles, but being counted is important,” said City Clerk Mark Jomsky. “We all have to do our best to make sure those communities are not dissuaded.” 

The census is also used to distribute some $880 billion in federal funds for such things as public education, health care initiatives, transportation projects, infrastructure repair and construction projects, homeless assistance and other public services.

Population counts from the 2020 census will be used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets for the next decade.

Practically since taking office, the president has railed against sanctuary cities that protect immigrants and threatened to withhold federal funds from cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Pasadena has not been declared a sanctuary city, but has an established policy preventing police and other city employees from questioning people about their citizenship status.

According to that policy, city employees who use official resources to collect and share information about a person’s immigration status could face disciplinary action.

“The only people who can help others fill out census forms are census employees. City staff [members] are not allowed to help people fill out census forms, so city staff would not be asking this question of anyone,” said Pasadena Public Information Officer Lisa Derderian.

Julianna Serrano of All Saints Church, which has declared itself a sanctuary church for immigrants, said she believes the census citizenship question is aimed at changing voting districts, thus  producing dramatic political gains for conservatives.

As for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “I generally I do not believe they can be trusted,” said Serrano. “And in combination with the hateful anti-immigrant vitriol that is coming from our president, I believe anything is possible, including ICE getting access to census info relating to non-citizens.”

Across the state, other counties, including San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside, have been encouraging residents to participate in the census. Those counties have formed what are being called Complete Count Committees (CCCs) which seek out immigrant communities and encourage residents to participate in the census.

The city will put together its own CCC to help develop and implement a 2020 Census awareness campaign based upon their knowledge of the local community. City officials will work with the CCC, but will not go door to door asking citizenship questions.

At a recent meeting of the City Council, Michael Khouri of the US Census Bureau said the census bureau does not share a respondent’s personal information with other agencies. Census employees could be sentenced to five years in prison and face a $250,000 fine for disclosing that information.

Federal judges in Maryland, New York and California have already ruled against the administration’s proposal, but last week it appeared that the Supreme Court was leaning toward voting in favor of the question along party lines.

The Trump administration has maintained that the question was added to collect more detailed citizenship data to enforce part of the Voting Rights Act. The district court judges concluded that was not the real reason for the administration’s last-minute push for adding the question.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned the administration’s justification for the question. “There’s no doubt that people will respond less” to the census if it includes a question about citizenship, Sotomayor said.

Justice Elena Kagan, another liberal member of the court, called the need for a citizenship question “contrived.”

Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, both Trump appointees, pointed out questions about citizenship have appeared on the census in the past.

“This is not benign information,” said Hermann Habermann, a former deputy director with the Census Bureau. “People’s lives are going to be affected by it.”

Six of the bureau’s former directors, who have served under both Democratic and Republican administrations, have warned that adding a question about citizenship would jeopardize the accuracy of the population count.

Trump, Alvarado said, intends to exclude millions of people from participating in the census even if it means violating the Constitution.

“They want to instill fear in people,” he said. “We are going to encourage people to participate in the census. This is about representation and being counted.”