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Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross approved a late request from the Justice Department for a citizenship question to be added to the 2020 census. Trump officials who supported the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act used it to justify their move by claiming it reinforced protections against voting discrimination. Marc Steiner talks with Eduardo Cisnero’s about the effect this will have on the Latino community

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us today. And we’re about to talk with Eduardo Cisneros, who is the National Census Director for the NALEO Education Fund. And one of things we’re going to cover today with Eduardo is the push by the Trump administration to put citizenship questions on the census form, which is a huge controversy and an initial push against immigrants and others in our country. So, Eduardo, welcome. Good to have you with us.

EDUARDO CISNEROS: Thanks for having me, Marc. Pleasure to be on.

MARC STEINER: So, let’s take a step backwards here. The census form has often asked questions about ethnicity, gender and issues like that. But asking this question that was brought up by Wilbur Ross, the new Secretary of Commerce, pushing the Department of Justice to add a question about whether or not you are a citizen is a relatively new phenomenon. So, give us a bit of the background here.

EDUARDO CISNEROS: That’s exactly right, Marc. So, the question was added as of March of this year, and in the process of being made more public, in terms of the background to how Secretary Ross indeed requested the question to be added, initially he indicated that it was his idea. And in a series of e-mails that have since then been made public, we are starting to see that it seems that the Secretary actually misled not only the public, but also Congress in indicating that it was the Department of Justice’s idea to add the question. In fact, that’s still being figured out and investigated and made more public.

What we’re seeing in a series of e-mails that were requested via the FOIA process is that it in fact may have been the secretary himself that initiated the process to add a question, the citizenship question that asked about citizenship, which mind you hasn’t been asked of one hundred percent of the population since 1950.

MARC STEINER: And now it comes up, of course, when we’re in the midst of the Trump administration pushing for a wall to be built, with families being arrested and separated and detained in compounds in this country. And all that’s coming at the same time this is coming about. And there were memos that were released that I understand that show that President Trump may have known about this beforehand, that Steve Bannon had a hand in it, and also this could cost the country a great deal more money, to put it and that way, if this is put through. So, tell me where it is now.

EDUARDO CISNEROS: Yep, that’s exactly right Mark. In fact, there’s a perception in the public, particularly amongst Latinos and immigrants that this administration has taken several anti-immigrant positions, and Latinos and immigrants in many ways feel under attack by this administration. There’s a heightened sense of fear of disclosing information in general given this time of security breaches and data breaches online not only amongst Latinos but across the country. There is definitely a sense that, and we’re seeing that this is going to suppress Latino counts in many in many states and across the country. An inaccurate count is going to be expensive and in fact this question wasn’t tested since the 2010 census.

There’s been numerous experts and academics and bureau officials that have done a series of tests and research to create the most accurate form. We’ve seen that that has all essentially been tossed out the window and questions amongst race and ethnicity and the citizenship question have been added in the eleventh hour without being tested. And so, our concern in NALEO and our concern amongst the census expert community is that this is certainly going to depress participation amongst immigrants and Latino community and leading and resulting in a more expensive process for every nonresponse individual in the country. That results in follow up phone calls and potentially follow-up visits, with enumerators visiting their homes. And that all has a price tag.

MARC STEINER: So, what do you think the process is now? I mean, because we’re inching up on the year 2020, when every ten years we have to do a census, court cases have been put forth. The courts accepted some of these court cases to take on the federal government and take on Mills and the others to get this out of our census forms, but the time is short since they have to print the forms, they have to get people hired to ask questions. So, talk about both the legal and political process about where we are now and what you think might happen.

EDUARDO CISNEROS: Right, and it’s a good point. And I would say that NALEO is an organization that has actually been through four census cycles. We are experts in this space particularly when thinking about engaging the Latino community in the process. And I would say that we’re seeing unprecedented levels of changes with the census coming up in 2020. There’s diminished resources at the bureau, there’s not a permanent census director. Even today, there’s been someone that’s been nominated but that person isn’t in place. So, already we’re seeing that the process has fallen behind the timeline compared to previous cycles. We’re also seeing that this year is going to be the first census that’s going to be done entirely online, or folks’ initial response is going to be encouraged to participate via the online process and that is new to folks.

And so, that’s going to be a change that’s going to require a pretty significant educational campaign. A lot of the outreach programs that the Census Bureau are either on the chopping block or have been eliminated. So, that certainly isn’t going to help. And in terms of doing rehearsals and trial runs, the Bureau had planned multiple trial rehearsals and they’ve narrowed it down to just one that just recently wrapped up in Providence County, Rhode Island. And that’s not enough research and testing to to really ensure that we’re going to have an accurate and full account, given all the changes that that have come about on this upcoming census.

MARC STEINER: When I asked a question originally I mistakenly said Mills when I meant Ross. I get my Wilburs mixed up. But getting back to the hard point of this, I’m curious where you think this could end up. I mean, this could be- could this court battle actually delay the census? Where do you think it’s going to be? Because this clearly is a push being made to dampen Latino turnout when it comes to the census and having the right numbers in America. So, where do you think this ends up that way?

EDUARDO CISNEROS: Yeah, I wish I could answer that more confidently. The answer that we’re getting is essentially, TBD. We’ve heard that legal experts and judges in various capacities are trying to accelerate this and ensure that it’s a speedy process given that the census is around the corner. But really, it’s too early to tell, at least as of right now, what the process is going to look like, what the end result is going to be, whether the census gets delayed. Personally, I don’t have an answer to that.

MARC STEINER: I didn’t expect you to have a crystal ball, but I mean this is going to be kind of clearly fought out in the courts. And I wonder what the community responses should be. I mean, are their pushes politically being made to make sure this is not part of the census?

EDUARDO CISNEROS: Right. Thank you, and great point. And it’s a very timely question. There is currently a nationwide, full fledged campaign to encourage folks, community members, experts, nonprofit organization leaders and others and elected officials to submit public comments via the Federal Register notice, which is currently underway. It closes on Tuesday, August 7. But NALEO is a partner in a national effort amongst coalition partners that care about the census to encourage folks to participate or submit public comments to the Secretary to remove the question. So, we’re hopeful that they’ll hear the community’s voice.

There’s been dozens and dozens of folks that have participated in the process already. It closes on Tuesday at midnight. And so, that’s one avenue that we’ll continue to pursue in terms of a public advocacy campaign to remove the question. Hopefully our partners in the legal space and advocates and experts continue to proceed with the litigation to get it removed. And we’re hoping that ultimately it will not be included in the census, but we’ll have to wait and see.

MARC STEINER: Well, we will include that information on our website here at The Real News. And for all of you who want to be involved and say something, you should say something and ensure the rights of the people in this nation. And Eduardo Cisneros, thank you so much for joining us today on The Real News. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.

EDUARDO CISNEROS: Thank you, Mark. Likewise, have a good one.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network, talk to you soon.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.