Hijacked gloves, politicization concerns in 2020 census

ORLANDO, Fla. — U.S. Census Bureau officials on Thursday recapped the challenges of executing the nation’s head count, which included hijacked personal protective equipment for census takers, difficulty getting access to tribal lands because of pandemic restrictions and worry that nonprofits wouldn’t want to partner with the statistical agency because of the Trump administration’s failed effort to add a citizenship question to the census.

The assessment of the once-a-decade census by top Census Bureau officials came during a virtual meeting of the bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations.

Tim Olson, who led the data collection efforts for the 2020 census, acknowledged that bureau officials, before the start of the head count, worried that community groups and nonprofits wouldn’t want to partner with the agency in encouraging people to participate because of the Trump administration’s failed efforts to gather citizenship information on U.S. residents.

The Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire, and President Joe Biden rescinded two orders involving citizenship and the census when he took office last January. The first Trump directive ordered the exclusion of people in the country illegally from the numbers used for determining how many congressional seats each state gets, and the second directive instructed the Census Bureau to use administrative records to gather citizenship information on U.S. residents.

Civil rights groups and others believe the Trump administration’s efforts had a chilling effect on immigrants and Latinos being counted in the census, which determines how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as the annual distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding.

“We really worried that would affect the ground game,” said Olson, an associate director of the bureau.

Committee member Thomas Saenz, president of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told bureau officials that, through no fault of the Census Bureau, the census has now been politicized and its public perception has been permanently changed. The bureau needed to have a proactive communication strategy to counteract that perception and restore its image of neutrality, Saenz said.

The new coronavirus upended timetables for the head count by causing delays in the deployment of census takers into the field and making residents more wary of opening their doors to strangers. Particularly difficult was reaching residents of tribal lands that were closed off to stem transmission of the virus. Census Bureau officials struck a deal with leaders of Navajo Nation allowing census takers coming from areas with low infection rates to interview households on its reservations provided they were screened for the virus, Olson said.

Olson disclosed that a truck transporting millions of disposable gloves meant for census takers in another country got hijacked, and the gloves “mysteriously disappeared.”

“Those shipments were never to be found again,” Olson said.

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