The last time the federal government asked about citizenship status on the U.S. census was 1950. Now federal officials plan to do it again in 2020.
Immigrant advocates warn that's a big problem; they say many people won't respond for fear of deportation, and the result could be immigrant communities losing representation in government or access to vital federal aid.
Among the advocates taking on a key national role in the debate is Miami-Dade County school board member Lubby Navarro. Along with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Navarro is co-chairing a commission focused on counting Latinos in the 2020 census, put together by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, NALEO.
The panel plans to hold hearings around the country, including in South Florida, to gather information for a report it will eventually send with recommendations to the U.S. Census Bureau.
One suggestion Navarro is sure will be included in the report: that the federal government reverse course on the citizenship question. Navarro said that’s especially important in South Florida, where it’s already difficult to convince immigrants here to fill out census forms.
There are many people in South Florida that have fled countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where corrupt governments have oppressed and abused their people, she said.
"There is a natural fear in our community against government," Navarro said.
Navarro's family came to Miami from Cuba in 1980 when she was 5. She lived with her family in Krome Detention Center until they were processed as political asylees.
"Many immigrants here don't have the opportunity to seek political asylum," she said. "They're in the shadows, hiding, fearful of going to take their children to school, going to the grocery store, that someone could stop them and deport them."
The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy against illegal immigration and the recent uproar over separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border only exacerbates immigrants’ fears, Navarro said.
Immigrants will worry how the information on the census could be used against them, she said. Census information is pinpointed to specific geographic areas, so government officials could use it to find the neighborhoods or blocks where there is the highest number of non-U.S. citizens.
"Educating them is going to be particularly hard," she said.
But Navarro is a fierce advocate for everyone completing the census. That's because 170 federal programs depend on census data. As a school board member, she’s especially concerned about Title I funding, which is used to offset inequities in state and local education dollars to help the poorest children.
Title I not only provides additional funding for teachers and resources at schools but also for parental involvement activities and before- and after-school tutoring programs.
"Title I is critical," Navarro said. "We know our children that come from these countries need that extra attention, extra help."
Another concern Navarro expects her commission to address is the plan for a digital delivery of the census. While there will be paper forms available, the initial push will be for census takers to fill it out online. Some of the information about each person will be pre-populated, which could spook immigrants, as well, she said.
"That is already fearful for some communities — when you pop up the form and it says certain things about you," such as how many people live in your household, she said.
One of the reasons Navarro was chosen to lead the national commission was because she oversaw Miami-Dade County's efforts to encourage people to participate in the 2010 census. For example, she helped plan nearly 400 community events around the county to educate people in so-called "hard to count" communities about why it’s important to participate.
The results were mixed. She said the county increased its participation from 2000 to 2010, which she saw as a win. And the city of Hialeah was a national leader in participation.
There was also an undercount of 18,000 Latino children in Miami-Dade County in that census.
"And that meant … we lost funding for early childhood programs and services for all those children," she said.
She is encouraging local government officials to begin now engaging their constituents about taking the census, which will be administered in March 2020.
"What I learned from 2010 is that starting a year early is not enough," she said.