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Census Advocates Allege Disinformation In Mailer

U.S. Census Bureau

Advocates for an accurate census count are claiming a mailer from an anti-immigration group constitutes a “disinformation” campaign. The letter, sent out last fall, calls itself a “Consensus Survey” and asks residents for their views on immigration policy.

Anita Banerji, director of the Democracy Initiative with Forefront Illinois — a civic engagement nonprofit — said the survey could discourage people from filling out the actual census form.

“When you receive a letter of this kind that mimics an official document from the Census Bureau, it serves as a scare tactic and could lead to identity theft,” she said.

The survey was distributed by the American Immigration Control Foundation, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a hate group . The foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

The return address lists the “Department of Collections” at a post office box in Virginia.

The instructions ask recipients to fill out the survey to give Congress and President Donald Trump the “essential data needed to evaluate and determine public opinion on current population trends and proposed major changes to U.S. immigration policy.” It also asks respondents to confirm their name and mailing address, and requests donations to process the survey.

Cook County Commissioner John Daley said he had similar concerns to Banerji, which is why he shared the letter with Forefront and other elected officials working on the census. A constituent presented the letter at a recent community meeting.

“The concern I've had is … the fear factor that people have,” Daley said. “I think stuff like this just complicates it more.”

Banerji said misinofmration or disinformation about the census in Illinois is particularly concerning because of what’s at stake.

“Illinois has had the largest outward population migration in the last five, six years alone,” she said. “We stand to lose so much, definitely one congressional seat and hundreds of millions of federal dollars that all residents across the state rely on. This is the one issue that we rise and fall together as a state and we need for all of our residents to be counted.”

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s Census Office, said they were not previously aware of the survey, but forwarded it to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We can understand why it has generated fear in immigrant communities,” Meghan Powers wrote in an email. “This is why the work we’re doing with our nonprofit partners is so important. They have staff on the ground who are ready to demystify and help people interpret these letters if they receive them.”

The Illinois legislature set aside $29 million to fund efforts to get an accurate count. Much of the money is going to nonprofits and local governments across the state to encourage participation.

The population count begins this month with college dorms, nursing homes and other group housing. Most residents can expect a letter in March inviting them to fill out the census form online.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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