WNPR

2020 Census Provokes Mixed Reactions On Citizenship Question

Apr 6, 2018

Like many of his neighbors, Bernie Michel came to Hartford from somewhere else.

In Michel’s case, Ohio.

But for more than two decades he’s lived in Asylum Hill, an area of Hartford that’s become a resettling haven for immigrants and refugees — so many that the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association established its Welcoming Committee five years ago to make the newcomers feel more at home.

“It’s become … part of the culture,” Michel said at a recent neighborhood event honoring refugees. “It’s no surprise to see people from all different places coming together.”

The last Census in 2010 showed Asylum Hill as a microcosm of racial diversity. And in more recent years, Michel said he’s noticed new residents from places like the Congo, Iraq, Syria, Thailand, and Nepal.

While the Welcoming Committee steers clear of asking neighbors about their citizenship status, the 2020 Census is planning to ask that question — and that has stirred mixed reactions across the country and in communities like Hartford.

Controversial Question

The Census is designed as a count of every living person in the United States, with massive implications for funding and representation in Congress. The last time the Census asked about citizenship on the decennial, once-every-ten-years survey that goes to every U.S. household was 1950.

Now, the federal government says it wants to know the number of voter-eligible U.S. citizens, and where they are, so it can enforce the Voter Rights Act. Critics dismiss that explanation and argue that reinstating the question stokes an atmosphere of fear that could intimidate noncitizens into skipping the Census — leading to an undercount in heavily-populated blue states such as California and New York.

A multi-state coalition that includes Connecticut filed suit against the federal government this week to block the citizenship question from appearing on the final Census form.

The Connecticut Historical Society and the Asylum Hill Neighborhood Association's Welcoming Committee held a recent event honoring the resilience of refugees and immigrants.
Credit Vanessa de la Torre / Connecticut Public Radio

Lynne Williamson often works with immigrants as director of the state’s Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program at the Connecticut Historical Society.

“I have a concern that it might be a subtle way to target people or pinpoint people,” she said of the citizenship query.

The Census Bureau says the data it collects is used for statistical purposes, and not to identify individual people. But even among immigrants with legal residency, Williamson said there can be a mistrust of government forms, and fear of being kicked out and sent back to volatile situations in their native countries.

“I think we should be as open-hearted as we can be,” she said, “because to me, that’s what America is.”

‘My Country’

Several refugees told stories of struggle and resilience last Thursday at an event that the Connecticut Historical Society put on with the Asylum Hill welcoming committee. A Syrian chef cooked the food, and on the dessert table, chocolate chip cookies were arranged alongside baklava.

The evening’s emcee, Georges Annan-Kingsley, is an artist from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Generally, he takes issue with immigrants who lose touch with their culture once they make it stateside.

But as for the citizenship question, that doesn’t bother him. He believes a country has the right to know the legal status of its residents.

“This is my way of living: You need to have [documents] before going to somebody’s country, and when your time is up, you just go,” said Annan-Kingsley, who came to Hartford under political asylum in 2013. “So for me, putting where I’m coming from on the paper, it doesn’t matter for me.”

Another Asylum Hill resident, Hsa Ku Soe, came to Hartford 10 years ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. The 21-year-old of Karen heritage said she’s now a U.S. citizen and is studying nursing at the University of Saint Joseph. For her, answering the citizenship question on the Census would be a point of pride.

“I actually feel proud that I’m a citizen of this country, because in the refugee camp, I was considered a refugee, not a citizen of Thailand,” she said. “So … this is my country. The U.S. is my country.”

Hsa Ku Soe, 21, center in light blouse, came to Hartford a decade ago from a refugee camp in Thailand. She says she's proud to be a U.S. citizen.
Credit Vanessa de la Torre / Connecticut Public Radio

But the way Adam Romo sees it, the question adds another layer of angst for immigrants. Romo runs the Mariachi Academy of New England, and said many of his students come from Mexican families who have suffered under the Trump administration. Deportations have become a reality, he said.

“We had some families taken apart,” Romo said. “So there’s a lot of worrying out there already.”

Nationally, and in Connecticut, about 7 percent of residents are not U.S. citizens, according to estimates from a much smaller sample, the American Community Survey, that the Census Bureau conducts every year.

For now, the fate of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census could be decided by the courts. 

This report is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.