FRAMINGHAM — Massachusetts’ sizable populations of immigrants, college students, and renters makes it one of the most difficult states to count on the census every 10 years. Boston, for example, has among the lowest census return rates in the nation.
But the traditionally hard-to-count state could be even harder during the 2020 Census, officials say, because of fears of deportation in immigrant communities, the growing distrust of government, the addition of thousands of new housing units, and the shift, for the first time, to count most people online, rather than on paper.
“I’m really concerned about this,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s official liaison to the 2020 Census, who held a census kickoff event in Framingham on Monday. “I’ve done this twice before, but I’ve never come up against odds like this before. It’s really challenging and, I’ll be the first to admit, I have no magic solution.”
Concerns about the accuracy of the count have been heightened by the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a proposal that local and state officials contend will make it more difficult to persuade immigrants to be counted.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments later this month over whether the Trump administration violated federal law when it proposed adding the question to the census. A ruling is expected in June.
Wading into the debate with a sharply partisan tweet on Monday, President Trump groused that the census would be “meaningless” if residents are not asked about their citizenship status.
“Can you believe that the Radical Left Democrats want to do our new and very important Census Report without the all important Citizenship Question,” Trump tweeted, hours before the Census Bureau held a briefing in Washington intended to allay fears that its constitutionally mandated mission has become politicized. “Report would be meaningless and a waste of the $Billions (ridiculous) that it costs to put together!”
Galvin, a Democrat, shot back that “the citizenship question is a complete partisan fraud” that would sabotage an accurate count of the 1 million immigrants living in Massachusetts, about one quarter of whom are undocumented.
“The citizenship question has one purpose: That’s to scare people from responding,” particularly in heavily immigrant, Democratic states disliked by the Trump administration, Galvin said.
Counting every person, regardless of citizenship status, however, is critical, Galvin said, because the census is used to disburse billions of dollars in federal aid to the states for transportation, public health, and education. The count is also used to determine the lines of congressional districts, although Massachusetts is not expected to lose a US House seat, as it did after the 2010 Census.
Estimates suggest the state now has about 6.9 million residents, up more than 5 percent since 2010, making it one of the few states in the Northeast that is growing. The overall population is rising because immigrants have been flocking to the state for jobs, even as the state’s native-born population has declined, state officials said.
Yet many immigrants here and across the nation are worried their census information will be handed over to immigration authorities, said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and chairwoman of the state’s 2020 Complete Count Committee, which is seeking to ensure an accurate tally.
“If we miss immigrants, refugees, and mixed status households because of fear, we could have a significant undercount,” Millona said.
Even if the Supreme Court knocks the citizenship question off the census, “some of the damage may be irreversible, especially when we recognize the current climate, where many immigrants are afraid to call 911 or even take their children to the doctor,” Millona said.
She and others said the census must find church officials, community activists, and other trusted voices who can emphasize that an accurate count is vital to ensuring poor and immigrant communities receive their fair share of federal dollars.
These census ambassadors must also remind immigrants that federal law forbids the Census Bureau from sharing their answers with other government agencies, including local, state, and federal law enforcement.
“Having someone from the government come to your door, asking all sorts of questions, is going to be terrifying if we don’t prepare the households,” Millona said.
Adding to concerns about the 2020 Census is the bureau’s move to have a majority of residents respond online.
While the shift away from traditional, mail-in census forms could make it easier and faster for many residents, and cut costs for the Census Bureau, Galvin and others are concerned that the poor, the elderly, and others unaccustomed to doing business online will be left behind.
The move to online data collection has also raised concerns that the census could be compromised by a cyberattack or damaged by a disinformation campaign on social media.
Census officials have been fortifying their cyber defenses, and have met with Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter to plan how to stop misinformation from spreading online, according to The Washington Post.
Census officials also said residents who do not respond online by April 2020 will still receive a census form in the mail and have the option to respond on the phone before a census taker knocks on their door.
“You don’t have to respond online if you’re not comfortable with it,” said Jeff T. Behler, regional director of the census. But online census-taking could be a boon, Behler said, allowing people to respond easily, wherever they are.
Pitching the idea at Monday’s kickoff event in Framingham, he raised the notion of retired Red Sox legend David Ortiz appearing on the Jumbotron at Fenway Park between innings and declaring, “ ‘Hey, everyone take out your smartphone and fill out your census.’ ”
“We can do that this time,” Behler said. “He is a trusted voice to a lot of people.”