Trump playing a winning hand in his fight against an accurate census

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Even if President Donald Trump’s last-ditch attempt to get a citizenship question on the 2020 census fails, he’s still winning.

He is succeeding in scaring off immigrants from filling out the form. That’s terrible for Illinois, a state with about 1.78 million foreign-born people.

“The damage has been done,” Katya Nuques, of the nonprofit Enlace Chicago, told me. The community group is based in Little Village, a Southwest Side neighborhood that is predominantly Mexican American.

Enlace and other nonprofit groups across Illinois will work hard to convince immigrants to fill out the form. They’ll explain that their congressional representation, their voice in government, is at stake. Distribution of federal funding is also allocated by the census count, they will tell people.

It’s tough to get the message out there “when people are worried about basic safety,” Nuques said.

Census outreach groups, along with Census Bureau staffers, will be up against years of Trump trashing immigrants and siding with the nationalists and white supremacists who long to see a whiter America. They will be up against a president viewed as ruthless by many immigrants and Americans alike.

As I write this, the Trump administration is preparing to arrest and deport thousands of undocumented immigrants in cities across the U.S. this weekend.

American citizens whose parents are undocumented no doubt will be caught in the roundups. It is expected that immigrants who aren’t targets for deportation will end up in detention. They’ll all be collateral damage.

When the time comes to fill out the census form, immigrants will remember the raids; the administration’s determination to include a question about citizenship on the census short form; the Muslim ban and other proposals to limit legal immigration and asylum cases; plus all that nasty rhetoric.

People will think hard about whether it’s a good idea to be counted. They will worry that completing a census form eventually could lead to their deportation. To many, it will be a no-brainer to ignore the form.

Grassroots outreach groups promoting census participation will tell reluctant people that by law, the Census Bureau is required to keep people’s information private. Employees sign affidavits swearing lifetime oaths for this. The U.S. government says personally identifiable information will not be made public for 72 years after the decennial census.

Many people won’t believe it.

“There has been so much fear and misinformation about what the census is going to be used for, people are unsure,” Jane Lombardi, of the nonprofit Erie Neighborhood House, told me.

Lombardi, director of immigration, health and leadership for the group, has heard concerns from undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens. Many of these people are heads of households. They are responsible for filling out census forms for their families, including children who are citizens. If the head of household passes on the census, the entire family takes a pass.

If the citizenship question is included, some people could decide to skip it and fill out the rest of the form. I could see immigrants and Americans doing so. Skipping it would be a way to protest a government that seems hell-bent on undercounting foreign-born people and their kids.

Typically, skipping a question triggers a follow-up call or visit from a Census Bureau staffer. The bureau goes to great lengths to be accurate.

There is a hope among some community organizers that if hundreds of thousands or millions of people skipped a citizenship question, the Census Bureau would be too overwhelmed to do the follow-up. The government would have to live with incomplete information.

The administration would have only itself to blame.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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