By Prem Calvin Prashad
The U.S. Census — a count of all persons residing within the United States — became a political firestorm when the Trump administration demanded the addition of a question on the legal status of the respondent.
In Queens, community groups that work with immigrants have a daunting task. The census numbers are used to make decisions of federal funding and determine representation in Congress.
However, immigrants — undocumented and otherwise — are concerned about providing information on the census, for fear that it could expose their families or jeopardize their chances at citizenship. On Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 in Jackson Heights, the community group Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM) organized “Stay Safe and Being Counted” at Diversity Plaza, to allay community concerns, describe the importance of the census and gather public comment on the proposed changes.
A lot of people don’t know about how the important the census is and how it affects their day to day life, noted Roksana Mun, director of Strategy & Trainings at DRUM and organizer of the event. There are opportunities for the public to provide feedback on the census changes, the next of which should happen within a month or two.
“They [the community] thought it was a done deal,” Mun noted.
The public education workshop, which gathered responses from the community to be submitted during the feedback period, was endorsed by 10 other community groups across Queens, including Make the Road New York, Chhaya Community Development Corporation and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. City Councilman Daniel Dromm and state Senate candidate Jessica Ramos and state Assembly candidate Catalina Cruz were present as well.
In addition to concerns over census data collection, Queens communities are feeling the chilling effect of the “public charge” rule, a standard under which a green card can be denied if the applicant will be “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.”
Though the idea of public charge is not a new one, on Sept. 22, the Trump administration proposed changes to the rule to also include public benefits, including SNAP, Medicaid and public housing. This is a reversal of a 1999 federal policy to exclude these programs and serve eligible families and their U.S. citizen children.
The administration may go as far as including the Childhood Health Insurance Plan (CHIP). Use of any of these services over the previous 36 months would be a “heavily weighted negative factor” and would lead to the rejection of an application.
Of course, the precise definition of that standard and which immigrants it would apply to (there are exceptions) is unclear. Refugees are technically excluded, as are a few other applicants for certain types of visas. In all, it is complex and seemingly arbitrary to the layperson. The ambiguity about the rule already has a chilling effect on families in the borough.
“There are already people not seeking healthcare because they want to become citizens,” Mun noted. “They want to make our communities unlivable” and noted that the goal of the “enforcement heavy” Trump administration was to de-populate the community. “They want to remove services and create an incentive for people to leave,” she continued. Immigrant communities in Northern Queens have already been rocked by the cancellation of Temporary Protective Status, wherein the government cancelled the legal status of thousands of long-term residents and informed them to prepare for deportation.
The proposed public charge rule will hurt children as well. Even if they are be citizens, unless their parents are financially secure, they will likely go hungry or not receive necessary healthcare. Particularly, if CHIP is included, it would be a needlessly cruel punishment for parents and children alike.
“People need to understand that regardless of how you feel about people receiving benefits, this is unconstitutional,” Mun said, “everyone must be counted.” “Everyone benefits from these [federally funded] services and you are only hurting yourself,” she concluded.
The public commentary on the census question is intended to be reopened sometime next month.