Houston has an answer to Trump’s dangerous Census question [Editorial] – Houston Chronicle

The goal of the census is to make sure everyone in America is counted. It’s right there in the Constitution.

The parchment doesn’t say “only those who return a form” or “someone who has valid immigration status.” It talks about numbers of people and little else. It’s a mandate the Census Bureau takes seriously, from processing millions of mailed survey responses to census takers walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors.

The goal is an accurate count that helps determine how to divvy up everything from school breakfast funding to political power.

That mandate is threatened by the Trump administration, which plans to add a question about citizenship status to the 2020 census. The move — a malignant outgrowth of the president’s focus on demonizing those in the country illegally and his anti-immigrant rhetoric — is a blatant effort to curb participation. While the measure is tied up in the courts, suspicion of the decennial count and how that information will be used is already having an effect, creating fear among immigrant communities.

Fortunately, Harris County and the city of Houston are working together, along with dozens of area nonprofits, to counter the administration’s execrable goal.

“Our campaign is an attack on fear, an attack on apathy, an attack on ignorance,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, the city’s top planning and development official, who is leading Houston’s census efforts. “We need to convince Houstonians that this is one of the most important civic duties they have in 2020.”

The population count is used in many ways, including apportioning congressional districts and federal money. For each person who goes uncounted, Houston would lose about $1,500 per person, per year in government funds, officials said. With limited resources to go around, every penny matters in better serving our area’s needs. Less federal funding affects all of us, as census data is used to determine support for a variety of programs, including road projects, improving teacher quality, wildlife restoration and crime victims assistance.

It’s hard enough to get an accurate head count in a normal year when there’s no controversial provision to scare people away. The homeless, refugees, immigrants, college students and renters — be they a millennial in a Montrose loft or a family in a West Houston apartment complex — are traditionally undercounted, officials said.

For the 2010 census, officials wisely changed their efforts from what had been primarily an advertisement campaign to more direct contact. Workers and volunteers walked through neighborhoods, talked to residents and spoke at churches and civic clubs to get the word out. The plan this time around is to do that and more, including targeting “influencers,” people who are trusted contacts in the community — such as pastors, doctors and service providers — so they can spread the word about the census.

The city has committed $650,000 so far to outreach efforts, while the county is spending up to $4 million on an initiative aimed at traditionally undercounted communities.

Wallace Brown, who was involved in the 2010 count, said the political rhetoric around the census may make next year’s efforts more difficult. It’s not just people in the country illegally who would not be counted, but entire households with mixed immigration status families that will think twice before giving the government any information.

The Census Bureau is prohibited from releasing records to other government agencies. But given the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies and the fact that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross misrepresentedto Congress how the citizenship question came up in the first place, claiming it was requested by the Justice Department while records show it came from White House officials, people’s skepticism and fear are justified.

But Trump’s true intent may be simpler if no less ugly.

Most immigrants in the U.S. live in counties, including a dozen in Texas, that have seen an increase in Democratic voters. By suppressing the count, these areas will receive fewer federal resources and may lose political clout — another line of attack, perhaps, in keeping with President Trump’s multiple attempts to reward Republican strongholds and punish regions that support Democrats.

The U.S. Supreme Court may yet stop this cynical exploitation of the census, but distrust has been sown and the damage is done. It is now up to our local governments to guarantee that the Constitution’s directive for a true count — for true representation of all residents — is honored.

Thankfully, Houston and Harris County are up to the task.

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