Could Trump memo cause a census undercount in New Jersey?

A neighborhood in Paterson is a prime example of New Jersey’s diversity with the Bengal Pharmacy, a Peruvian restaurant and a Spanish bodega all located on Bangladesh Boulevard. Many received U.S. census forms but feel reluctant to fill them out, citing the Trump administration’s latest crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

“You know, they don’t have no papers. They think doing the census they going to get, you know, like the ICE going to come in and pick them up,” said Paul Hernandez.

“People are afraid because of the whole world that’s going on right now. People are scared they’re going back home,” said Edwin Cortez.

The U.S. Supreme Court shot down President Donald Trump’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census last year. A new memo attempts to track down and exclude undocumented immigrants from the official census count by using unnamed databases, “information permitting the President, to the extent practicable … ” to identify those without documents, stating “ … respect for the law and protection of the integrity of the democratic process warrant the exclusion of illegal aliens from the apportionment base …”

It’s used to decide the number of seats a state gets in Congress. It’s having a chilling effect on immigrants completing the Census.

“They’re just precautious of what they want to send, what they want people to know, what they want the whole system to know,” said Cortez.

“The ripple effect is the increase in paranoia among the immigrant community to participate in this. Thinking that if they do participate, even though it clearly says on the website for the census that this is confidential and will not be shared,” said immigration attorney Steve Maggi. “He’s saying exactly the opposite of that when he says that we will gather the information from other sources in order to be able to exclude these individuals.”

It’s an uphill battle. The census count nationwide and in New Jersey is running at over 60%, but in Paterson it’s under 50%. Critics say the president’s latest move won’t help.

While the memo will be challenged in court and the U.S. Constitution clearly states everyone must be counted, officials fear the memo’s impact on New Jersey’s census results. It could yield an undercount of New Jersey’s almost 500,000 undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, the federal government uses population as a guide to distribute resources, including money for schools and hospitals.

“And if we’re undercounted, it means we won’t get the resources that our communities need. Which is horrible, because right now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and we see how much we need these resources, right? And we see that our communities, our migrant Black and brown communities, have been hit the most,” said Rosa Lopez, a community organizer for Make The Road New Jersey.

New Jersey taxpayers already get back only 82 cents of every dollar they spend in federal taxes. And because the state’s undocumented immigrants comprise 5% of the population, a census undercount could also cost New Jersey some political clout in Washington.

“If you discourage another half-million immigrants from responding, our population count that should be around 10 million drops to 9.5 or 9 [million]. And when that happens, we risk losing another congressional seat like we did 10 years ago,” said Passaic County Freeholder Jack Bartlett.

Census 2020 workers won’t knock on doors during the pandemic, but Bartlett’s overseeing census efforts in Paterson by bringing signage to businesses. With a pandemic extension, the effort to count New Jersey will continue until Oct. 31.