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Activists are worried that undocumented immigrants in Colorado will feel too scared to participate in the Census.EXPAND
Activists are worried that undocumented immigrants in Colorado will feel too scared to participate in the Census.
U.S. Census Bureau

Will Undocumented Immigrants Be Scared Away From Census?

The U.S. Census, which goes online today, March 12, helps determine congressional representation and federal funding allocations. With so much at stake, it's designed to be a count of everyone.

And "everyone" includes not just American citizens, but green card holders and undocumented immigrants.

But immigrant-rights activists in Colorado are questioning whether the Trump administration truly wants everyone to be counted, pointing to recent high-profile enforcement measures as evidence that ICE is making itself more visible in order to intimidate undocumented immigrants.

"The intention is to intimidate and to make arrest visible" so that the rest of the community feels a chilling effect, said Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee advocacy organization, on a March 11 conference call with reporters.

During that call, activists showed a video of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent attempting to detain a father while he drops his children off at a school in the Durango area. They also cited cases of people getting detained at truck-weighing stations in Colorado as evidence that ICE is intentionally trying to make itself more visible. But ICE challenges that characterization, noting that the weigh-station operations are handled by the Thornton Police Department and that ICE is just there to assist with potential cases of smuggling or instances when someone has an international driver’s license.

And local ICE officials strongly deny that recent enforcement actions are related to the census.

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“Colorado’s sanctuary policy has resulted in increased enforcement efforts and has nothing whatsoever to do with the census,” says John Fabbricatore, the acting field office director for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in Denver. “Please stop inventing reasons why we arrest criminal aliens. Our common goal with law enforcement is to keep the public safe, and despite the policies of politicians and city officials that place obstacles to protect the criminal alien, we will continue to enforce immigration laws and make the community safe.”

Fabbricatore's use of the term "sanctuary policy" is a reference to a 2019 Colorado law that prevents jails from holding on to detainees wanted by ICE past the time they'd normally be released. ICE argues that jails need to keep detainees longer so that the transfer of custody can happen in a more orderly fashion; immigration attorneys argue that such a practice is a rights violation.

Beyond more visible enforcement actions, immigrant-rights activists point to other developments as indications that the Trump administration is trying to dissuade undocumented immigrants from participating in the census.

Homeland Security leadership recently ordered that agents with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations branch, which specializes in complex criminal investigations, be transferred to the Enforcement and Removal Operations branch, which handles deportations, in so-called sanctuary cities such as Denver.

A recent statement from the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition calls this reallocation of personnel in Denver an "intimidation tactic."

But ICE also rejects this claim.

"The reason for increased enforcement efforts in Denver lies squarely with the implementation of a sanctuary policy that shields criminals and hinders the ability of our law enforcement partners from working with us," says Alethea Smock, a local ICE spokesperson.

However, it's not just ICE that is ramping up efforts. The Trump administration is also sending what's essentially the SWAT team of Customs and Border Protection to other sanctuary cities.

Meanwhile, U. S. Census officials are stressing that regardless of their immigration status, people won't face repercussions for participating in the count.

"Responses to the 2020 Census are safe, secure and required by federal law to be kept strictly confidential. Responses can only be aggregated with other data to produce statistics. Individuals’ responses cannot be used for law enforcement purposes," says Laurie Cipriano, a spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau. "By law, all responses to Census Bureau household and business surveys are kept completely confidential. Census Bureau employees take an oath to protect this personal information for life. The Census Bureau will continue its work to ensure a complete and accurate 2020 Census."

The Trump administration had tried to include a citizenship question on the census; last June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration couldn't ask that question. But that didn't end the concerns.

"We already know that it’s already been a challenge as it is to encourage members of our communities that are immigrants to complete the census," said Ana Rodriguez of the Colorado People's Alliance during the conference call.

In the coming months, census workers will be knocking on doors across the state. If residents are concerned that the worker might be an ICE agent or sharing information with ICE, activists recommend that they fill out the survey online or over the phone.

Update: This story has been updated to add ICE's explanation of its presence at weigh-station stops.

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