Inside The Massive, Coordinated Push To Make Sure A Census Citizenship Question Does Not “Distort Democracy”

“I’ve never seen the amount of support, investment, the breadth and depth of partnerships that I’m seeing for 2020,” one census outreach organizer said.

The Trump administration’s decision to ask people about their citizenship status on the 2020 census has galvanized a national coalition of civil rights advocacy groups to build a coordinated effort to make sure immigrants and their families are counted by the US government, funded by progressive philanthropic organizations including the Ford Foundation and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.

The question of whether the question can be added to the census is the highest-profile case still before the Supreme Court this month. Civil rights groups worry that the question would deter noncitizen immigrants, from undocumented people to green card holders and people living in the US on other visas, from taking part in the census. They say that’s particularly concerning given the Trump administration’s attempts on several fronts to target various immigrant communities, including green card holders from Muslim countries included in the travel ban who were initially excluded from coming back to the US.

Advocates argue that the question could have a chilling effect and lead to an inaccurate census, which is used to make major decisions throughout government, including determining congressional representation.

“When I found out the citizenship question was a potential to be on the form I decided to rejoin, like, this is the fight,” said Lizette Escobedo, director of National Census Program at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, who worked on the 2010 census.

NALEO is one of the groups coordinating the efforts nationally along with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and others.

“I’ve never seen the amount of support, investment, the breadth and depth of partnerships that I’m seeing for 2020,” she said.

That increased investment from philanthropy has been crucial for the coordinated network of advocacy groups across the country. Major philanthropic organizations have come together in a rare show of unified support for one specific cause, raising $54 million so far for groups on the ground planning how to make sure communities of color and others who are typically undercounted in the census are not left out. Those plans include 24-hour helplines in multiple languages, outreach at public libraries, churches, and census outreach staff in hard-to-reach communities across the US.

“From everything I know, it is unprecedented and it is unprecedented in several ways,” said Gary Bass, executive director of the Bauman Foundation, who’s leading around 80 national philanthropic organizations to fund roughly 150 civil rights and local advocacy groups around the country to prepare for the fallout of the changes to the census.

Last month, four large progressive philanthropic organizations, the Ford Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, JPB Foundation, and Open Society Foundations, contributed $5 million each to the funds. Bass said the effort is still short of its $73 million goal to fund all the plans on national, state, and local levels.

Instead of “going off and funding census [work] on their own,” as philanthropic organizations usually do, “they’re doing it in a strategic manner” this time, Bass said, because philanthropists realize that an inaccurate census can have an effect on every other field the groups donate to.

“The census cuts across virtually everything we do,” he said, adding that if the census is not accurate, government funding could wind up lacking in some areas, putting “even more pressure on philanthropy to address these serious community needs.”

He said the way census numbers can change redistricting of local, state, and congressional seats is a fundamental concern for philanthropic groups with interests in everything from education to business development, to arts and culture.

“If we get the count wrong, we distort democracy for the next decade. And I would say funders of all stripes care about that.”

In August last year, leaders of 300 organizations that work on philanthropic grants signed a letter opposing the addition of the question, and submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court.

“We have different funding priorities, are ideologically diverse, and do not always agree with each other. But we wholeheartedly agree that the citizenship question should not be part of the 2020 Census,” they wrote in the letter.

“Foundations tend not to want to engage in policy matters. They are behind the scenes … Most of us don’t like to be quoted, most of us don’t like to be in front of the camera,” said Bass.

Representatives for the Ford Foundation, JPB Foundation, and Open Society Foundations referred BuzzFeed News to Bass when asked for comment on their involvement with funding census turnout work.

“Census 2020 has a lot to do with equitable opportunity in the communities we work — especially related to congressional representation and distribution of federal funds for education, medical care, infrastructure and economic development,” Regina Bell, a program officer working on census grants for the Kellogg Foundation, told BuzzFeed News in a statement.

“To make sure that all children have the opportunity to thrive in their communities, it’s important to ensure these people are counted accurately,” she said.

While nonprofits and philanthropic groups had census work underway for several years — Bass said the group he’s heading up decided to focus on the 2020 census back in 2015 — the possible consequences of a citizenship question being added created an urgent and concentrated push to get efforts in place.

NALEO’s Escobedo and other advocates said they had planned outreach campaigns for closer to the census date but were forced to move those plans up in line with the likely date of the Supreme Court decision, and to add specific plans to talk to communities about why they should still engage even if the census asks about their citizenship status.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross first announced his plan to add the citizenship question last March. That was followed by several lawsuits challenging the move, with lower courts mostly deciding against Ross, agreeing with civil rights groups and states, which argued that the census would be less accurate because noncitizens would give false information or avoid participating out of fear of sharing their immigration status with the federal government.

The administration has argued that the question would allow the Department of Justice to better enforce the Voting Rights Act because it would provide more information about the number of noncitizens in the US.

Documents discovered last month on the hard drive of Thomas Hofeller, a recently deceased Republican strategist, show that Hofeller in a 2015 study pushed the citizenship question as a way to “to create a structural electoral advantage” for “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” according to court documents filed in federal court in New York. Hofeller later helped write a letter justifying the need for the question for the Trump administration, arguing it would ensure Latino populations are fully represented.

Challengers in the case before the Supreme Court argued that adding the question would further suppress engagement with the census among communities that are already undercounted.

“No matter how the Court rules, people are understandably already anxious, given the climate of fear and because this administration ignored the advice of all experts when it decided to add the citizenship question,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, in a statement to BuzzFeed News. Gupta added that the coalition aims to make sure undercounted communities don’t miss out further by getting swept up in the idea of a boycott of the census if the question is added.

Part of the preparation is being ready to “fight any actions to harm census respondents in violation of the law,” she said.

For some initiatives, like the NALEO helpline in Spanish and English that the group plans to have up and running beginning Monday, funds from philanthropic groups have been crucial, because federal and corporate funding is scant.

State governments in states where Democrats are in power, like California and Nevada, are also helping to fund grassroots organizing ahead of the census. In California, “the level of investment is much much higher for the 2020 census because the citizenship question has kind of created this urgency for California to kind of step up and fill in the gaps that the federal government is leaving,” said Esperanza Guevara, census organizer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

In other parts of the country with significant hard-to-count immigrant populations, like Texas and Florida, “we’ve been having to really count on the support of the philanthropic community to come in,” said Escobedo, because states with Republican-controlled state legislatures are not providing funding for census outreach.


Esperanza Guevara’s name was misspelled and the name of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials was misstated in an earlier version of this post.

Skip to footer