Children in Central Falls, R.I., walk past the boarded-up railroad terminal, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011. The communities surrounding Central Falls are watching their neighbor’s municipal bankruptcy with caution as they consider stepping in to share services while trying to ensure they aren’t the next to be declared insolvent. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Count Down

How the Trump Administration Is Botching Its Only Trial Run for the 2020 Census

Children in Central Falls, R.I., walk past the boarded-up railroad terminal, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011. Photo: Michael Dwyer/AP

Central Falls, in Providence County, Rhode Island, is home to 19,000 people living shoulder to shoulder on 1.2 square miles of hard New England earth. The majority of its residents are Latino: 72 percent speak a language other than English — mostly Spanish, but also Portuguese and French Creole. More than a third are foreign born and slightly less than that live below the poverty line. Nine percent of the population are children under 5 — 43 percent higher than the national average. The median household income is $29,108.

These statistics identify Central Falls as one of the hardest-to-count areas in the country for the purposes of the census. Central Falls is a gateway community, filled with recent immigrants, many undocumented. Some residents live multiple families to a home. For work, they shuttle back and forth across the state line to Massachusetts, where the minimum wage is $0.90 higher. Residency is fluid and impermanent. Heiny Maldonado, the director of Fuerza Laboral, a local workers’ center, said her group’s membership is “constantly changing. So many workers come and go.”

Central Falls, along with the rest of Providence County, is the site of the Census Bureau’s one and only “dress rehearsal” for the 2020 census — the one chance the bureau has to test its systems and methodology ahead of the nationwide count two years from now. In one sense, Providence County is a good choice for a trial run: The obstacles in cities like Central Falls mirror those of the nation. But as civil rights leaders, census experts, and Democrats warn that the Trump administration is sabotaging the 2020 census, mayors and community leaders in Rhode Island fear the 2018 test has been set up to fail.

On Wednesday, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa called an emergency meeting at City Hall with other Providence County mayors, Rhode Island’s attorney general and secretary of state, and community leaders from the ACLU, the NAACP, Common Cause, and the Latino Policy Institute. The agenda was simple: how to salvage the Census Bureau’s trial run.

The day before, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the census, had announced that the Census Bureau would be including a citizenship question on the 2020 questionnaire. The decision confirmed the worst fears of census advocates: The Trump administration would use the census to sow fear among immigrants and deliberately tip the electoral and economic scales toward whiter, more Republican districts. In the next 24 hours, some 12 state attorneys general announced they would sue the administration over the citizenship question.

The question is “an assault on immigrants, Latinos, and the 2020 census,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO Education Fund and a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee since 2000. “Adding a question on citizenship at this time [will] fan the flames of fear and distrust in the census, further risking depressed response rates.”

“The announcement of a citizenship question, on the heels of many anti-immigrant actions by the Trump administration and the underfunding of our census trial run, was throwing a match on gasoline.”

The effects of the new question are already being felt at the survey’s proving ground, in Providence County.

“People are confused, concerned, and outraged,” Diossa told The Intercept. “The announcement of a citizenship question, on the heels of many anti-immigrant actions by the Trump administration and the underfunding of our census trial run, was throwing a match on gasoline.”

Some experts fear the survey is already irreparably compromised. “It is doubtful that the 2020 census will be as accurate and inclusive as 2000 or 2010,” said Ken Prewitt, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, in an interview. As a result of the administration’s decision, Prewitt said, “There will likely be a lower turnout, it will fall disproportionately on hard-to-count communities, who will then suffer from fewer resources than their numbers warrant.”

For the mayors of Providence County, the decision caused a flood of calls from immigrant constituents wondering whether they should fill out the census forms that had mysteriously already arrived at their doors — or whether doing so would put undocumented members of their families at risk.

Due to funding shortfalls, the Census Bureau had zeroed its budget for advertising the dress rehearsal; most Providence County residents had no idea the test was coming. Though the Providence test questionnaire — which was finalized months ago — does not include a citizenship question, it has nonetheless thrown the county’s immigrant communities into crisis mode. For the bureau, Providence Country represents an opportunity to test its high-tech methodology and ensure its systems are running smoothly. But for the cities and towns of the county, the rehearsal stands as a preview of the fear and mayhem that will undoubtedly accompany the 2020 enumeration if the Trump administration has its way.

“People are afraid,” Diossa said. “People might not want to open their doors or answer their mail or send their information to Washington, D.C. But we need them to be counted. That is our obstacle.”

A sign for the U.S. Census  Bureau headquarters campus as police search for an armed man who, according to a fire official, shot a security guard at a gate to the facility in Suitland, Md., Thursday, April 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A sign for the U.S. Census Bureau headquarters on April 9, 2015.

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

The census, a decennial count of every man, woman, and child in America, is a mammoth civic undertaking with profound consequences for the distribution of political and economic power in America. Congress allocates $675 billion in annual federal funds on the basis of census data. Medicaid distributes $312 billion; SNAP, a nutritional assistance program, distributes $69.5 billion; Medicare Part B distributes $64.2 billion; and Section 8 housing distributes $38.3 billion. And census data is used to draw local, state, and congressional legislative districts. An undercount among poor, urban, and minority populations risks accelerating the disenfranchisement of already marginalized communities.

Even before the citizenship question was announced, the Census Bureau faced an array of obstacles: a leadership vacuum at its highest levels, delayed funding, and deep fear and distrust of the federal government throughout the country.

In Central Falls, residents have good reason to distrust the feds. Over the years, the city’s Latino residents have faced wave after wave of immigration crackdowns. They saw their city decimated by the housing crisis, while federal authorities bailed out the banks that created it. “After 2008, this city was a ghost town,” Heiny Maldonado said.

In the 2010 census, overcoming antipathy and fear in Central Falls took a herculean effort. At the time, Marta Martínez was the Census Bureau’s statewide partnership specialist. She took a special interest in Central Falls. “When I was hired” — in 2008 — “I looked at the numbers and I thought, We’re going to get the count up there,” she said. If she could increase the response rate in Central Falls, Martínez reasoned, she could do it anywhere. But even from within the community, there were challenges; a group of Latino clergy, including a pastor in Central Falls, had called for a boycott of the census.

To combat rampant fear and confusion, Martínez identified “trusted voices,” local leaders who could convince weary Rhode Islanders that census participation was not only safe but necessary. One of Martínez’s trusted voices was Anna Cano Morales. Cano Morales was born and raised in Central Falls — “Central Falls is my heart,” she told me. A community leader and school board chair, Cano Morales set about convincing her neighbors that filling out the census was a way to fight back against the forces pushing them into the shadows. “We should not be hiding,” Cano Morales remembers saying, “We need to be counted. We need to be demanding services. We need to be demanding resources and representation — regardless of whether you have documentation.”

“Si no nos cuentan, no contamos” — if they don’t count us, we don’t count.

Heiny Maldonado, who turned out Fuerza’s members for census events and door-knocked herself, said the climate of fear was difficult to overcome: “We had to convince them it was important, that it mattered for the community.”

Another trusted voice, activist and OB/GYN Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, came up with a slogan for the effort: “Si no nos cuentan, no contamos” — if they don’t count us, we don’t count. The slogan rolled off Cano Morales’s tongue when I visited her at her office at Rhode Island College, where she is an administrator. “It had a campaign feel to it,” she said of the 2010 census push. “There were timelines. There were resources. There were people doing festivals. There were T-shirts. We were on the radio. We were in the newspaper.”

There was also political urgency. In the 2000 census, Central Falls was listed as 48 percent Latino. “We knew we were very close to being a majority Latino city,” Cano Morales said. Although other surveys suggested the city was already majority Latino, those few percentage points mattered — at least symbolically. The municipal government was still dominated by the descendants of an older generation of (white) immigrants.

Ultimately, their efforts paid off. Central Falls’ mail-in response rate went up 8 percentage points and the city was recorded as 60 percent Latino. It was a watershed moment for the city’s Latino community.

The energy carried over into other causes: The mostly white local political leadership was gradually replaced by a new generation of immigrants and their children. In 2012, then 27-year-old Diossa, whose parents were factory workers from Medellín, Colombia, was elected the first Latino mayor of Central Falls. The seven-member City Council now represents seven different national extractions: Colombian-American, Dominican-American, Salvadoran-American, Puerto Rican, Italian-American, Syrian-American, and Cape Verdean-American. The state representative for the area, Shelby Maldonado, a Central Falls native who attended Central Falls High two years behind the mayor, is the first Guatemalan-American elected official in Rhode Island history.

Anna Cano Morales’s father also hails from Medellín. “If you look at the leadership in Central Falls now,” she told me, beaming with pride, “just about every corner of it is Latino.”

In this Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, photo, Natasha Cuny, left, her boyfriend, Raymond Eagle Hawk, center, and their daughter, Kimimila Eagle Hawk, right, stand outside Raymond Eagle Hawk's mother's trailer in Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Cuny, Raymond Eagle Hawk and their daughter live next door in a shed. The housing shortage on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a longstanding problem for thousands of Oglala Sioux members, but the tribe is pushing the issue into the spotlight again after severe storms and flooding in May spurred a federal disaster declaration. (AP Photo/James Nord)

Natasha Cuny, left, her boyfriend, Raymond Eagle Hawk, center, and their daughter, Kimimila Eagle Hawk, right, stand outside Raymond Eagle Hawk’s mother’s trailer in Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on Sept. 30, 2015.

Photo: James Nord/AP

The outlook for the 2020 census is not as bright. Not a single one of the community leaders who led the 2010 charge in Central Falls — not Heiny Maldonado or Marta Martinez or Anna Cano Morales or Pablo Rodriguez — has been contacted by the Census Bureau about the 2018 census test.

Every one of them agrees that Donald Trump’s presidency; the climate of fear around so-called Dreamers who were granted stays of deportation under the Obama administration’s DACA program only to have their statuses revoked by Trump; and heightened antipathy toward the federal government mean it will be harder in 2020 to get an accurate census count in Rhode Island. Cano Morales said, “Now is the time that you would need a well-resourced campaign, more than ever.”

Until last week, the most immediate concern for advocates of a robust census was funding. Those advocates found cause to cheer when Congress’s omnibus spending bill included a much-needed boost in funding for the 2020 effort. “The 2018 funding level is very encouraging,” said Ken Prewitt, the former Census Bureau director.

Before the omnibus, the Census Bureau had faced stark funding shortfalls. “The historical pattern over the last three decades is that between the years ending in seven and eight, the Census Bureau’s budget ramps up by 60 or 70 percent,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, an expert who was the staff director of the House Census Oversight Subcommittee from 1987 to 1994. The Trump administration’s original budget request for 2018 amounted to a mere 2 percent increase. Congress’s appropriation in the omnibus bill, however, was higher than advocates had anticipated. The bill allocates $2.814 billion for the Census Bureau. That’s almost double the 2017 figure of $1.47 billion and over a billion more than the Trump administration’s adjusted request for 2018.

“The Census Bureau now has a fighting chance to address those risks and prepare for an all-out mobilization less than two years from now,” Lowenthal said. (For its part, the Census Bureau is confident: “We are fully confident in our ability to complete an accurate decennial census in a timely fashion with the funding we receive,” the bureau said in a statement.)

Even as interest groups cheered the boost in funding, many fear the bureau remains unprepared to implement the first “high tech” census. The Census Bureau scaled back plans for testing its procedures and methods in “dress rehearsals” across the country. The bureau had intended to test its methodology in rural West Virginia and on Indian reservations in Washington and South Dakota — areas where broadband density is low and poverty is high — but those tests were canceled.

“Rural areas are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to internet access,” said Bill O’Hare, a demographer and the author of a new report from the University of New Hampshire on the undercount of rural communities in the census. “Canceling the test in West Virginia negates any potential insights they might have got about that issue there.”

Minorities in rural areas — who are already severely undercounted in the census — will be disproportionately affected, O’Hare said. According to his research, 40 percent of impoverished blacks in the rural South and impoverished Hispanics in the rural Southwest lack internet access at home. Some tribal leaders have also reported that “internet response is currently not a viable option for [their] members,” according to an April 2017 presentation by Dee Alexander, a Census Bureau expert on tribal affairs. The leaders requested a local tribal member to act as an in-person enumerator.

The Census Bureau said the canceling of the tests was not an obstacle to a successful count. “Instead of simulating these strategies in a test environment, we are starting to develop the real communications strategies,” the bureau said in its statement. “We are currently working with our partners in native and rural communities, building on the success of our efforts in prior censuses.”

Census watchers remain concerned. “Basically, the bureau will be conducting the census in rural communities, remote communities, and on Indian reservations using methods that have not been tested in a contemporary environment,” said Lowenthal.

In past dress rehearsals, according to Lowenthal, O’Hare, and Vargas, the bureau has conducted full enumerations of the test population, including a fully funded outreach and communications campaign — all on the same schedule as the decennial.

Enter Providence County, which the Census Bureau said is an “ideal community” for the test because “its demographics mirror those of the nation.”

Yet the plan for Providence was far from a “dress rehearsal”; it’s more like a stage reading. The bureau will attempt to count everyone in the county, but it has no budget for communications and partnerships and there was hardly any advertising to make residents aware of the survey. Perhaps most concerning, the bureau also declined to conduct a post-enumeration “coverage measurement survey,” which is used to determine the accuracy of the count after the fact.

The Census Bureau, in other words, narrowed its ambitions even for its limited, one-off test. The bureau, in a statement to The Intercept, said, “The focus of the 2018 test is on ensuring all of our operations, procedures, systems, and field infrastructure are working together.”

That, itself, is no small task.

In this Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012 photo, cars pass a welcome sign at an entrance to Central Falls, R.I. The state of Rhode Island stepped in to take over financially struggling Central Falls in 2010, with a state-appointed receiver filing for bankruptcy on behalf of the city in August 2011. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Cars pass a welcome sign at an entrance to Central Falls, R.I., on Jan. 12, 2012.

Photo: Steven Senne/AP

It was raining in Central Falls when Heiny Maldonado, the head of Fuerza Laboral, picked me up in her KIA Sorento. It was a very Rhode Island sort of rain, almost imperceptible, but if you stood out in it for more than 30 seconds, it soaked you completely. Maldonado had agreed to give me a tour — thankfully, by car.

It didn’t take long to trace the borders of the city. As we drove, Maldonado gestured to little pockets of town where different ethnic groups congregate — Colombians, Guatemalans, Dominicans, Cape Verdeans, Portuguese, Polish. We passed the bustling commercial strip on Dexter Street, the shuttered Osram Sylvania factory, a senior home, dozens of churches, and cafés selling Colombian arepas. A few buildings sported the signature red brick of old New England mills, now being developed into lofts for commuters from Providence. Eventually, we drove past the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, an imposing federal detention center surrounded by barbed wire. We were back at the Fuerza office in 15 minutes flat.

Wyatt Detention Facility is a constant reminder for immigrant residents of the power of the federal government over their lives. In 2008, a New York Times investigation revealed that Wyatt, built in 1993 to hold federal inmates awaiting trial, had become enmeshed in the nation’s notoriously opaque system of immigration detention. Central Falls’ own inhabitants were being swallowed up into the void. For immigrants, any innocuous interaction with government could lead to devastation. Undocumented men and women, many of whom had built lives here and become pillars of their communities, retreated into the shadows. “They felt it wasn’t worth the risk,” Maldonado said.

Those fears are only reinforced by Trump’s presidency. In January, Lilian Calderon, a 30-year-old mother of two who has lived in Providence since she was 3 years old, was taken into custody by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement while applying for lawful permanent residence at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Johnston, Rhode Island. She was held in detention in Massachusetts for nearly a month before public outcry and an ACLU lawsuit forced her release. Calderon’s case, said Pablo Rodriguez, the OB/GYN, “has sent shockwaves through the community. Fear is at an all time high.”

That spells trouble for the census. For the survey to be successful, said Cano Morales, “there needs to be a narrative that counters fear constantly. Otherwise, people are going to get an envelope from the federal government with a big seal and bald eagle on it, and they’re going throw it in the trash.”

Qualitative research conducted by the Census Bureau supports Cano Morales’s assumption. In a 2017 investigation, Mikelyn Meyers of the bureau’s Center for Survey Measurement identified “an unprecedented ground swell in confidentiality and data sharing concerns, particularly among immigrants or those who live with immigrants.” Respondents in Meyers’s surveys provided false names, incorrect birth dates, and omitted family members from their rosters. They required extensive explanations about “redacting and data access.” Respondents, according to the survey report, tended to think that “the less information they give out, the better. The safer they are.”

In one instance, one of Meyers’s interviewers approached a cluster of mobile homes where a group of Hispanic immigrants were living. “I went to one and I left the information on the door,” the researcher reported, “I could hear them inside. I did two more interviews, and when I came back, they were moving.” The respondents, the researcher surmised, were so afraid of being interviewed, they literally drove their home away.

The new funding in the omnibus bill means the bureau should have the resources to fund a significant outreach and partnerships program. The bureau told The Intercept, “For the 2020 census, we are looking to hire 1,000 partnership specialists at the local level. These partnership staff are hired locally to engage with the communities we are working to reach, especially the hard-to-count population.” But the absence of a community program in the Providence end-to-end test is itself troubling, census experts said, indicating that the bureau will be less prepared to implement an effective outreach strategy in 2020 and less prepared to navigate an extremely contentious environment.

“A big piece of being able to reach hard-to-count populations is doing a great job on communications and partnerships outreach,” said Meghan Maury, the chair of the Communications and Partnerships Working Group of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee. “For people of color, for low-income folks, for people who are undocumented or who have undocumented family members, you need much more nuanced messages coming from trusted folks.”

“That message isn’t being tested in the end-to-end test at all,” Maury said. “It’s not even a piece of it, it’s not there.”

City leaders have done their best with limited resources and time. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has been encouraging residents to participate in the end-to-end test and convened a Complete Count Committee with local stakeholders and Census Bureau representatives to plan for the end-to-end test.

Doris de los Santos, who co-chaired the RI Latino Complete Count Committee with Anna Cano Morales and Pablo Rodriguez in 2010, told The Intercept the Census Bureau is relying on civil society to carry the weight for outreach in the end-to-end test. “There’s an expectation that these community organizations will use their own resources to advertise the test,” she said. “It’s not that these organization wouldn’t want to carry the message, but they don’t have the money.”

The Census Bureau, she said, is not harnessing the infrastructure that was built in 2010: “If our campaign was successful — which everyone acknowledges it was — it is a shame that they are not tapping into the networks and connections and expertise that we developed in the community in 2010.”

Vargas, the Latino advocate and census advisory committee member, said his organization and other civil rights groups decided against intervening and self-funding an effective communications program for the Providence test. “We figured, if it’s not really a dress rehearsal, we may end up contaminating the results,” he said. By encouraging people to participate who otherwise wouldn’t, they would risk obscuring the shortcomings of the test: “The last thing we want to do is put lipstick on a pig.”

In this Jan. 29, 2013 photo Central Falls, R.I., Mayor James Diossa, center, speaks with President of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce John Gregory, left, and Director of Regulatory Reform for R.I., Leslie Taito during a meeting at the Public Works building in Central Falls.  Diossa, the newly elected mayor of Central Falls, Rhode Island, is from a Colombian immigrant family and is the hope of a mainly Latino town that wants to move forward after being marred by corruption and bankruptcy. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Central Falls, R.I., Mayor James Diossa, center, speaks with President of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce John Gregory, left, and Director of Regulatory Reform for Rhode Island Leslie Taito during a meeting at the Public Works building in Central Falls.

Photo: Steven Senne/AP

In a memo explaining its decision to include the citizenship question, the Commerce Department denied the wide consensus that the question would depress response rates. Rather, the administration says the question is necessary to ensure better data for enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

That justification, according to civil rights watchdogs, is not credible, especially not coming from this administration. “Voting rights enforcement has never depended on having that question on the [census] form since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act,” Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama and is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, told Mother Jones. “That’s plainly a ruse to collect that data and ultimately to sabotage the census.”

“There is little doubt that the intent of this question is to scare immigrants from signing on to the census.”

Terri Ann Lowenthal, the census expert and former oversight committee staffer, said, “Sadly, Secretary Ross’s explanation of his decision to include a citizenship question does nothing to counter suspicions that he was influenced by partisan factors or political goals unrelated to the Census Bureau’s constitutional mission.” She added, “The decision memo is replete with inaccuracies and contradictions and does a disservice to the integrity of a proud statistical agency.”

Pablo Rodriguez says the impact on Rhode Island is clear: “There is little doubt that the intent of this question is to scare immigrants from signing on to the census and thereby reduce funds to communities with large immigrant populations.”

And the implications for struggling, diverse cities like Central Falls couldn’t be more stark. “Our future is at stake,” said Diossa, the mayor. “Ten years of federal funding is at stake. Everything that makes a city great is at stake: public school funding, health care, affordable housing, small business loans, after school programs, public parks.”

The fear and confusion overtaking Providence County right now, Diossa said, will be seen nationwide in 2020. Diossa and other Providence County mayors are calling for an influx of funding to market and canvass around the trial run. “With each passing month, the evidence mounts that we have been set up to fail,” Diossa said, “With so much at stake for our state and our nation, we find this unacceptable. We need the census done right.”

Top photo: Children in Central Falls, R.I., walk past the boarded-up railroad terminal, Aug. 2, 2011.

Join The Conversation