Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series identifying how local minority organizations picked up the mantle to attempt to increase the Census Bureau count to avoid Chicago losing necessary federal resources and political clout.

Of all the red flags raised by the 2020 Census, one of the most concerning was the undercount of Latinos. It jumped more than three times as compared to 2010, hitting five percent nationally. The undercount for Blacks nationally was three percent, a figure that Census officials said was not statistically different from 2010.

The Census does not calculate racial or ethnic undercounts below the national level, but Latino community leaders say they expect the national figure to hold up across the US and reach higher levels in some communities.

When the national undercount figures came out in March, Arturo Vargas, head of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) called the numbers a “five-alarm fire” and feared that Latinos would suffer from the census flaw. He is especially worried, he said recently, by the failure to count all Latino youths, a critical issue because of the large number of Latino children. Young Latinos under five years old had a “disproportionate share” of all undercount youths in the 2010 Census, according to a 2016 study. With all of the funding, hoopla and community support, what went wrong in Chicago?

Part II of a two-part series

Why didn’t more get counted?

First there was the pandemic.

The National Urban League had planned to use of its offices across Chicago for people to sign up and learn about the Census. Instead, the group had to rely heavily on remote events. “The week that Census forms were due to arrive was the Covid shutdown,” said Brandon Lee, who led the Census effort for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. That meant long held plans “were out of the window,” he said.

With the pandemic surging, the situation was compounded with the Trump administration’s effort to complete the census early. Then came the legal pushback from groups and cities to the administration’s attempt to exclude the undocumented from the count. The result: the deadline for completing the census was changed six times. A court order blocked the Trump administration pitch to not count the undocumented. Meanwhile, the stop and start schedule for the census created chaos for the more than 400 groups in Illinois taking part in the census effort. They had to regularly change their budgets and hiring. All of this added to the challenge of reaching communities that have historically been undercounted, difficult to reach, deeply distrustful and doubtful that their numbers mattered.

Even before the count start, Butler of the National Urban League knew it would be an “uphill battle” in the Black community. It meant census takers had to reach people in overcrowded housing, in time-worn housing that might seem empty to some, and in finding the places where the homeless survive. “There are a lot of good and bad reasons why people don’t trust somebody at their door asking who lives there,” he added.

Within the Latino community, census efforts ran into fears stirred by “hostile rhetoric” about immigrants from the Trump administration, said Maricela Garcia, who heads the Gads Hills Center, which provides education and other services for about 4,500 children and their families from Pilsen to Brighton Park to North Lawndale and Chicago Lawn. Such fears were especially heightened among families, where some members might be without papers, and families where had taken in homeless persons, she said. “The culture is that you don’t let the homeless live on the streets,” she explained. The prospect of an undercount especially troubled Garcia, who fears that it would further reduce healthcare access for Latinos, who have suffered heavily in illnesses and deaths at the peak of the pandemic, and who don’t take advantage of all government resources, fearful that it would harm their chances for citizenship. The Trump administration had imposed a rule in 2019 allowing it to reject citizenship for immigrants, who rely heavily on public benefits because they would “likely be a public charged.” That stirred a number of legal challenges that worked their way up to the U.S Supreme Court. But the issue died when the Biden administration swept away that rule in 2021.

All the forces against a complete count were apparently on hand in the Back of the Yards community, which had the lowest response rate across the city, and several mostly Latino tracts there where responses were down by as much as 10 percent as compared to 2010. “I think it was the fear that Donald Trump’s administration would go after undocumented folks,” said Gary Chico, head of the Back of the Yards Council, offering a suggestion as to why the count was so low in his neighborhood. “We have so many undocumented folks in our community, and we have so many children who are offspring of the undocumented.” Though his group did not take a “lead in the census,” he said it supported a number of others who did. Asked about his effort for the census count, Alderman Ray Lopez, whose 15th ward touches on the Back of Yards, and who is a mayoral candidate, provided this email response:

“As directed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her administration, Aldermanic offices were intentionally left out of the census outreach process for their wards. Instead, Mayor Lightfoot chose to hire organizations with no direct neighborhood affiliations to handle the community outreach. Though alderman offered to help in this process they were told no.

“Despite being left out and faced with a situation he had no control over, Alderman Raymond Lopez took the initiative by opening up his two offices to constituents who needed help with completing the census forms and alleviating their many concerns about any inaccurate information they may have heard from the Trump administration. As you can imagine the importance of trust in a community is a key component to success.  Despite the refusal from Mayor Lightfoot to accept help from Alderman, the 15th Ward did the best they could in this situation”. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case. The city created a 16-member City Council committee led by Alderman Ariel Reboyras. And the committee provided the wards with the lowest counts given “extra support with community events and targeted campaigns.”  

Among the city’s wards, the 15th ward had the second lowest census response rate, 43.8 percent, according to Reboyras’ office. Faced with an undercount, and the resulting loss of federal, communities and organizations have since talked about appeals. Chicago officials said the city is considering its “available legal options.” They added that the city did better than similarly large and diverse cities such as Houston and Los Angeles to reach residents. How easy is an appeal? Not easy at all. That’s because of a revision in appeal process by the Census Bureau after the 2010 census. “Right now, that challenge program is very narrow and the way that cities can challenge it is very narrow,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a census expert and consultant. Indeed, a 2021 study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality pointed out a dramatic decline in census challenges, and markedly small population adjustments as a result of the challenges. While Census Bureau head Robert Santos, who was named by the Biden administration and became its first Latino leader ever, has talked about changes to overcome undercounts that harm minorities, Census officials recently said no changes have been proposed so far. But that doesn’t dishearten or discourage Kareem Butler of the National Urban League. “Since we have the opportunity and are fully recognized as human beings, we need to get what is owed and what we deserve.”

Stephen Franklin is a former labor writer and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, reporting from Afghanistan to Peru. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, he also worked for the Detroit Free Press, Philadelphia...

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