Federal officials are preparing the 2020 census under a cloud of contention and uncertainty about whether the headcount will ask if everyone in the nation is a U.S. citizen. But at one bustling child-care center that serves Hispanic and African-American families on Chicago’s West Side, it’s clear the fate of that question may not matter.

The mothers of children being dropped off at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning say thatregardless of whether the controversial question remained on the formsthe damage has been done and a climate of fear and mistrust has left them afraid to participate in next year’s census.

“A lot of people are going to dodge it,” said one mother of two children at the center, which relies heavily on federal funding that could be imperiled if immigrant  families and other minorities evade the national count in large numbers.

The woman, who spoke on condition that she not be identified, said she is a U.S. citizen and so are her daughters. But her husband is undocumented, and she fears that participating in the census would draw attention to his status as the Trump administration presses ahead with its “zero tolerance” immigration policies.

“It all comes down to: Are they going to use this against us?” the woman said.

The woman’s comments came before another flurry of activity on the issue, sparked by the Supreme Court’s refusal to immediately green light the question and its demand for a better justification. Underscoring the uncertainty the woman and many others expressed, Trump responded by insisting that the citizenship issue would be part of the census regardless of the court decision.

The Census Bureau’s own experts have warned that inclusion of the question would likely depress participation and lead to an undercount that could skew everything from political boundaries to the distribution of billions of federal dollars in the 10 years that follow.

No census in U.S. history has ever posed the question as universally as the administration had proposed, according to a recent analysis published by the law journal of Georgetown University Law School. Censuses of old did often inquire about the citizenship status of some household members, but the line of inquiry was dropped entirely from the principle household census questionnaire after the 1950 count.

Carole Robertson and places like it stand at ground zero in the citizenship question debate.

Each afternoon, the happy sounds of giggling and reunion between adults and children echo across the center, as a parade of mothers arrive to pick up toddlers and pre-K children. They burst through the double-doors, all sparkly ballerina dresses and mini-Avengers T-shirts.

For 43 years, Carole Robertson has been a place where mothers who can’t afford childcare know they can safely leave their children so they can work or study, hoping to get ahead. Roughly half of the center’s $11 million annual budget is covered by Head Start and other federal assistance programs that are apportioned according to the census’ population count.

But among citizens, legal residents and undocumented immigrants alike, a chill has descended over the neighborhood at the border between North Lawndale and Little Village, amid headlines about the federal government’s treatment of immigrants and minorities, including travel bans, raids, deportations, separated families and reports of squalid conditions in border detention facilities.

For days this month, Spanish-language newscasts and websites focused on a threat in a tweet by President Donald Trump. On the eve of a re-election rally, he said federal agents soon will begin deporting “millions of illegal aliens … as fast as they come in,” though he later said he delayed the action.

Families already are making themselves scarce. They’re avoiding malls and markets, giving up volunteering at public schools, passing on anything that requires a license, such as driving, and skipping the doctor.

“They’re afraid to put themselves out there,” said Alicia Castaneda, director of social services at Carole Robertson, which traditionally served mostly African-American families, but now serves a 50 percent Hispanic population. “What is the government going to do with their information? They see that really nothing is off limits.”

Wonky and distant, the census will pose hard choices for immigrant families as they learn about it: Most commonly, the families are of mixed status. Do they participate if all the kids are citizens but both parents are not? What if a grandparent isn’t, or an uncle?

The mixed nature of immigrant families was documented by the American Immigration Council. A 2017 AIC report said more than 817,000 Illinoisans, including 344,000 U.S- born citizens, lived with at least one undocumented family member between 2010 and 2014. Over that same time span, one-in-10 Illinois children was a U.S. citizen living with at least one undocumented relative.

The census, a tally of all residents of the U.S. going back to 1790, is the only task the country’s founders deemed important enough to mandate in the Constitution. Its arithmetic supports an endless web of public and private decisions about how to govern and provision the nation. And in matters of both purse and power, an undercount affects everyone, far beyond missed immigrants without documents.

With its declining population, Illinois already is expected to lose one of its 18 congressional seats based on the next census, and it’s possible it could lose two. The figures also help redraw state political boundaries, determining who controls city councils and the state Capitol.

Then there’s the money:

    • The equivalent of $36 billion was disbursed to Illinois in fiscal year 2016 based on 2010 census data, according to a Chicago Urban League report. The biggest programs were Medicaid, federal direct student loans, SNAP benefits (food stamps), Medicare supplement insurance and highway planning and construction.

    • The Urban League reported that federal programs assisting rural areas in Illinois received $425 million in FY 2016, including loans and assistance for housing, electrification and water systems.

    • For each additional undercount of 1 percent in 2010, Illinois would have lost $122 million in FY 2015 in Medicaid, child care and related other funds. George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy calculated a loss of $953 in those programs for every Illinoisan the census missed.

    • In the 2018-19 school year, the state received $678 million in census-calculated Title I funds to help schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. That included $254 million for Chicago, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Those Title I funds would be most missed in systems like Harvey School District 152, which administers four elementary schools and a middle school in the south Chicago suburb known for its recurring financial struggles.

Supt. John Thomas said his district received $2.2 million in Title I funds this year, seven percent of its budget. The money covers salary and benefits for 14 staffers, including classroom “interventionists” to help students with reading, math and technology coaches and “homeless liaisons.”

While mostly African American, the district is now 30 percent Hispanic. Like many schools with Hispanic students, its online student handbook features an “Immigrant Students Rights” page, advising what to do if agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement come to your house.

Harvey is within an area already among those across the country designated by the Census Bureau as “hardest to count.” But an even lower undercount would harm the district’s ability to serve all its children, immigrant or not, with a lack of other resources to fill the gaps, Thomas says.

“All students would be affected, as we operate ‘schoolwide programs’ in all of the district’s Title I schools,” Thomas wrote in an email. “Of this population, low achieving, at-risk students would be affected the most.”

ISBE officials say they are worried about losses across the state in programs for low-income students, school meals and services for students with disabilities. A “hold harmless” clause means a district would never lose more than 15 percent of Title I funds in any given year, they say, but any make-up funds need to come from other sources.

Advocacy groups are gearing up to promote the census, aided by $29 million recently designated by state lawmakers. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said it will be spent in rural and more diverse communities and in assuring the public it’s a process that immigrant communities can trust.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher, and to be frank, we’re behind,” Pritzker, a Democrat, said as he approved the money. “The census should never be used as a tool of fear and marginalization.”

The Trump administration has said the citizenship question is needed to help enforce minority voting rights. But Democrats have pointed to evidence of political motives, to help Republican areas at the expense of Democratic ones with large immigrant populations. Federal money no longer targeted at places like Illinois would go to other states, but the matter also could hurt high-immigrant Republican states such as Texas and Florida.

The census hasn’t asked about citizenship since the 1950s, though the question is posed in smaller, periodic samplings. Government officials are prohibited from using census data to enforce policies, but activists have feared it could be used as part of the administration’s “zero tolerance” approach to illegal immigration.

The Urban League report noted Illinois already has a counting problem: Nearly 42 percent of the state’s African-Americans live in areas officially designated by the Census as “hard to count,” along with 33 percent of Hispanics and nearly 20 percent of children under five years of age. Together, that represents 1.67 million Illinoisans.

Located between North Lawndale and Little Village, the Carole Robertson Center for Learning stands at ground zero in the citizenship question debate. (Madison Hopkins/BGA)

At Carole Robertson, named for one of four girls killed in a racially motivated bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church in 1963, the staff doesn’t know who is documented and who isn’t, because it’s not part of their mission to ask.

The center already is stretching capacity to care for 300 children, including 17 percent with special needs, through Head Start, Early Head Start, the Child Adult Care Program, and the Child Care Assistance program. All are federally funded and based on census counts, supplemented by state and charitable funds.

The center survived the worst of Illinois’ recent budget crisis, though staff had to take salary cuts. Executive director Bela Mote´ said losing 1 or 2 percent in federal funding might reduce the number of children the center can take in, and reduce “the things that give you quality.”

Up to 5 percent, and her board might ponder the operation’s sustainability, she said. “I’d have to begin poking at things that give us the big, positive outcomes for our most vulnerable children and families,” she said.

Statewide, Illinois received more than $500 million for the four childhood assistance programs in FY 2016, the Urban League reported. That included $371 million for Head Start.

A typical Carole Robertson mom is a woman named Kenyana, who herself went to the center as a child. Kenyana now drops off her 2-year-old daughter at the center so she can get to Malcolm X Community College to study computers. An African American, she read on the internet a false claim that the census was going to ask everyone’s country of origin, including blacks.

“As long as they don’t throw trick questions in there, like where in Africa are you from, I’m OK with it,” she said. “But it’s going to be hard for our brown sisters and brothers.”

One of them is the Carole Robertson mother with the undocumented husband who leaves her 3-year-old and 2-month-old at the center to work as a handywoman, including tuning up cars like her dad taught her (“Everything but plumbing”).

She said ICE came through her husband’s workplace, and that he fears any co-worker with a grudge could turn him in. He doesn’t drive “ever,” she said, and he’s “never been treated by a doctor.”

Another mother drops the youngest of her three children at the center while she drives for a ride-sharing service. She is undocumented, but her children are all U.S. citizens, and she said she wants them to enjoy their rights and be counted, but…

“Lots of people aren’t going to do it because of the fear. They fear the separation, and the reprisals,” she said. “It’s not positive, the government’s intent. It’s to put a mark on us.”

Staff members at Carole Robertson said they won’t try to pressure any of the parents they serve to fill out census forms, but will try to impress upon them how crucial the count can be to child care and so many other matters.

“The folks least likely to participate,” said Maria Whelan, director of Illinois Action for Children, a nonprofit that channels federal and state funds to service providers, “are the ones who are most in need.”

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