(Photo by Damon Adams)

With a shortened census deadline and a pandemic that’s halted almost all in-person outreach, Detroit has another census hurdle to face — President Trump’s order that targets one of the most vulnerable groups in the country: undocumented immigrants. 

The Trump administration last month issued a census memorandum addressing the Secretary of Commerce to exclude “illegal aliens” from the apportionment portion of the decennial census. This means that the undocumented population won’t be counted in congressional districts when district lines are redrawn next year.

In speeches and communications, President Trump and his administration often use the term “illegal alien” which some believe disparages undocumented people. 


Now Detroit’s undocumented immigrants and their families are even less likely to respond. 

Dr. Hayg Oshagan

“The [Trump] administration stoked fears first with the citizenship question and now with the idea that they can somehow count the undocumented to exclude them from the apportionment,” said Dr. Hayg Oshagan, New Michigan Media Director and Wayne State professor of media studies. 

 Detroit’s undocumented population

According to the Pew Research Center, there were an estimated 60,000 unauthorized immigrants in 2016 in the Detroit-Dearborn-Warren metro area. To narrow that down, Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López estimates that there are anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 undocumented residents in Detroit. 

“The fear amongst the undocumented community is very high and very valid,” said Cristal Rivas, a community organizer for the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp. 

Victoria Kovari, who is leading Detroit’s 2020 Census effort, said they are focusing efforts in Zip codes that have high concentration of Latinx families because they are the highest immigrant population in Detroit, “therefore it’s probably safe to assume they’re the biggest proportion of undocumented as well,” followed by Arabs and South Asians.

Oshagan explained that while some of the socioeconomically advantaged population might be worrying about using a suburban address for lower car insurance rates, “minorities in particular have greater concerns such as deportation issues.”

Raquel Garcia

Raquel Garcia, executive director at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, canvassed in southwest Detroit and said the neighborhoods she was visited were very “mixed status,” where one or some of the family is undocumented while the rest are U.S. citizens and they had fears of responding to the census.

“If you have one undocumented person living in a family of five or six, the whole family of five or six won’t answer the census just so that the one member of the family won’t get found out,” Oshagan explained. “So you’d have to multiply the number of undocumented immigrants by like five to get the number of people who would reasonably not respond to the census.”

According to Kovari, every Detroiter who does not fill out the census form costs their community $50,000 over the next decade. This means the undocumented population and their families legitimate fears of deportation can underfund their own communities.

Unlawful and undoable

Census experts believe the plan is unlawful and undoable.

Immigrants‘ rights groups and activists agree and are challenging the presidential order. Kovari said there are about a dozen lawsuits to fight the unconstitutional order and the City of Detroit has joined one of those lawsuits.

Kovari shared that the administration formed a task force internally to come up with some an estimation of how many undocumented immigrants there are in the country but she “has no idea how they would do that.”

Furthermore, officials inside and outside the U.S. Census Bureau are aghast that the Trump administration just created a new political appointee position called the Deputy Director of Data creating concern of more political interference. 

Kovari said the new deputy, Benjamin Overholt who “comes from an anti-immigrant background and is associated with anti-immigrant advocates,” has been put in charge of coming up with a formula to estimate the number undocumented people in each state. 

“There is absolutely zero way for the administration to figure out how many undocumented there are and so the only reason to float this idea that they won’t count the undocumented is to scare people,” Oshagan explained. 

Persuading immigrant communities to respond to the census has always been difficult but Trump’s announcement further legitimizes real fears of deportation and separating families in vulnerable communities.

Showing strength in numbers

As of Thursday, the city’s cumulative response rate is 49.2 percent, with a daily increase of about 0.2 percent. Meanwhile, outreach efforts continue to be targeted and purposeful in hopes of getting undocumented and minority communities to respond. 

Over the last six weeks, city officials and local groups who are bilingual Spanish-English speakers have visited grocery stores in southwest Detroit trying to get residents to respond to the census and offering $5 to $10 off their groceries if they sign up on site. Kovari said they’ll also be giving away gift cards and support events at local churches to encourage people to respond. 

Victoria Kovari

The outreach to the community is general because “we never ask anything about citizenship and neither does the census questionnaire,” Kovari said. 

Oshagan and his team have reached out to community leaders, community activists, ministers and teachers to help deliver the message so that census information comes from a trusted person in the community instead of city officials because sometimes there’s a lack of trust in the government. 

Garcia believes that a partial count is better than no count at all and encouraged legal residents to respond even if some members of the family can’t because of status.

“We make it clear that if they want extra precaution for anonymity, they can just do a first initial for their first and last name,” she explained. “There are a lot of frustrated people who can’t vote and we tell them that this is the closest thing to a vote.”

Kovari explained that while the administration could get “administrative records from Homeland Security, they wouldn’t be able to use census data because not only is it confidential, the census doesn’t have citizenship information in the first place so there shouldn’t be a fear to respond. 

Rivas wants to debunk all the fears around the ‘dangers’ of completing the Census because what most people don’t realize is that when answering the census questionnaire, residents can skip any question they don’t want to answer or do not know the answer to by leaving it blank or simply clicking next twice on the online survey.

“Our communities are at risk and under attack and it is extremely important, now more than ever that every undocumented person, POC, minority and impoverished person gets counted. We need all the funding and representation we can get, and we must show our strength in numbers.”

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