As part of its mission to engage with local government for what it sees as a just and transparent process that truly represents the constituents, the local advocacy group Ulster People for Justice & Democracy featured two guests, Jen Drake of the Dyson Foundation and Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, at its monthly meeting on Monday, June 17 at the Rosendale Community Center. On the agenda were two important issues: the 2020 U.S. Census and the new immigration enforcement policy implemented by Figueroa.
Drake described the importance of the census and the many questions and risks surrounding it. A key issue is the Trump administration’s intention to add the question about whether one is a U.S. citizen, which could lead to a significant undercount. “Large immigrant communities could lose out on representation and funding,” said Drake. Dozens of states, cities and municipalities have responded by suing the federal government. The case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by the end of this month.
Drake said the Dutchess-based Dyson Foundation, which funds nonprofits in six Hudson Valley counties, is committed to “examining the ramifications of an undercount, how we can support a complete count, and what funding is available to help.” The census is written into the Constitution — specifically, the requirement that the U.S. government count every person in the nation every 10 years — and was once described as “the largest peacetime mobilization of Americans.” The results determine two things: the distribution of $700 billion of federal funding and the distribution of political power, i.e. the number of seats each state gets in House of Representatives. The upcoming census is particularly important for New York, which is at risk of losing one seat and could lose two if our population is undercounted, noted Drake.
Besides the citizenship question, there are other serious concerns. Drake said because the previous census director stepped away after the presidential election and wasn’t replaced for over a year, the Census Bureau was under-resourced right when it needed to start making the push for 2020. The Trump administration also attempted to limit the bureau’s funding. The 2010 census cost $13 billion and estimates were that the 2020 census would cost $20 billion, Drake said. But “the Trump administration wanted to keep the funding flat,” and although Congress approved more money, there’s still a question whether it’s adequate.
There’s another very significant issue: the 2020 Census will be the first that’s online, which means “the system needs to be incredibly robust from a security and systems standpoint,” Drake said. People will receive a postcard with a unique identifier that will direct them to go online and complete the census; they can also call in. If they don’t do anything, they’ll get a second postcard as a reminder, and if they still don’t respond, they’ll eventually receive a paper document.
“People have a lot of concerns about this, including data privacy,” said Drake. “Will people feel safe going online? We’ve seen that tech can be a weakness, and whether the investment by the government is sufficient [to ensure the online form is effective] remains to be seen.”
Regarding the citizenship question, there are questions about the way it was introduced, she added. “Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross oversees the Census Bureau, and he asked that the question be added. Typically, the way a question gets added happens years in advance. Scientists and statisticians discuss and test it. But this was done precipitously.” Ross’ motives have been further called into question by the discovery of writings by a now-deceased Republican congressman affiliated with the Trump administration that showed “how the census could be used to suppress black and brown people by adding the question of citizenship” — evidence that the Supreme Court has been asked to weigh in their decision, Drake noted.
The timing of that decision is another concern: “You need millions of postcards for the 2020 Census, which means they have to be printed starting next month … if the Supreme Court doesn’t issue a decision by the end of June, I don’t know what will happen.”
While many undocumented immigrants will likely be afraid to answer the citizenship question, whether you are a citizen or not should not be a reason for concern, given that “in theory, census data exists in a black box and is not accessible to any part of the government, outside the Census Bureau,” said Drake. Part of the education process is letting people know accessing their data from the census is against the law, she added. She said that Dyson will be making funds available “for local trusted messengers to speak to people in their own communities in their own language.”
Drake said the Census Bureau has begun recruiting partners and enumerators — the people who knock on doors — of which 300,000 will be hired. The online process will begin in March and April and the results are supposed to be delivered to Congress by Dec. 31, 2020. “Once they have a count, the government does a statistical analysis to see of they did a good job by comparing the numbers to the records of births and deaths and information from local health departments,” Drake said. In the 2010 census, the government estimated that 1.5 million children were missed (“people think they’re too young and don’t include their children”) but despite that miscount, 2010 was the most accurate census ever, she said.
Figueroa: Deputies won’t enforce immigration law
One of newly elected Sheriff Juan Figueroa’s first priorities was issuing a general order for Immigration Enforcement to his 300-person staff on February 27.
“I’ve instructed the personnel in my office not to inquire about the immigration status of any person unless it’s necessary to investigate criminal activity,” Figueroa said. “Any interaction they have to document. We will not be performing any enforcement of immigration law. Service personnel may respond to a judicial warrant issued by a court or a judicial subpoena,” but not a civil immigration warrant, which is issued by ICE [U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] or CPB [Customs and Border Patrol]. “We shall not provide ICE or Customs and Border Patrol access to resources if ICE is enforcing federal law.”
A month into his term, “I got an email form from ICE, which said they wanted to meet. I said, ‘Sure, but in Ulster County I believe in the due process of the law.’ I never got a response back,” Figueroa said with a chuckle. Under the new policy, “when somebody gets stopped, we don’t ask their immigration status. The policy is about due process, the rights of persons who are arrested or detained. Everybody has the right to go before a judge and jury. I’m a big supporter of the Constitution, and I represent the people of this county. If you commit a felony, whether you’re undocumented or otherwise, you go to court.”
Specifically, the four-page policy says:
“Sheriff’s Office personnel shall not stop, question, interrogate, investigate, or arrest an individual based solely on the any of the following: actual or suspected immigration or citizenship status; or a ‘civil immigration warrant,’ administrative warrant or an immigration detainer in the individual’s name, including those identified in the National Crime Information Center database.”
Further, it states, “Sheriff’s Office Personnel shall not inquire about the immigration status of an individual, including a crime victim, a witness or a person who calls or approaches the police seeking assistance, unless necessary to investigate criminal activity by that individual” in which case the inquiry must be documented, and “they shall not perform the functions of a federal immigration officer or otherwise engage in the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
The policy also prevents personnel from honoring “detainer requests from federal agents.” The only instances in which Sheriff’s Office Personnel “may respond affirmatively to an ICE or CBP request for nonpublic information about an individual is if the request is accompanied by a judicial subpoena or judicial warrant, which is based on probable cause and is issued by a federal judge” — distinct from the civil immigration detainer described above.
The policy also applies to people in the sheriff office’s custody and “prevents use of office facilities to ICE or CBP officials for the sole purpose of enforcing federal immigration law.” Personnel “shall not inquire about or request proof of immigration status or citizenship when providing services or benefits,” unless such services or benefits are contingent upon immigration or citizenship status, the policy states.
“Things have changed drastically since [the Trump] administration took over,” Figueroa said. “A lot of people in communities of color are scared,” leading to “the old days of organized crime, because people would rather go to the godfather than law enforcement. We cannot go back to that.”
Figueroa said he discussed the policy with the sheriffs in Tompkins, in which sits the liberal enclave of Ithaca, and Albany counties, which have similar policies. “There are a handful of us,” he said, noting that all the surrounding counties’ sheriff offices “have a different philosophy.”
Figueroa also supports the Green Light Law (officially called the Driver’s Access and Privacy Law), which passed the State Assembly (and on Tuesday, was passed by the State Senate; Governor Cuomo was expected to the sign the bill into law). The law restores the right to obtain a driver’s license regardless of immigration status, a right that existed prior to 2001. With the passage of the new law, “safe individuals can get a license, get insurance, drive their kids to school and go to work,” he said. “It’s better for all of us.”
Addressing the overdose crisis
Figueroa said he’s applied for a grant, written with the assistance of a grant writer at SUNY New Paltz’s Benjamin Center, that would pay for a trailer equipped with a room and a bathroom designed to educate people about the signs of opioid addiction (such as syringes in empty toothpaste boxes, shoes missing laces and drugs hid in the empty battery compartment of an alarm clock). The trailer would be hauled to various events and locations, such as the county fair, and walk-through tours provided to the public. The grant would also pay for training police officers and crafting a plan to provide support to opioid addicts who are incarcerated, including enlisting mental health experts and a six-month follow-up after the person is released from jail. Such a program is desperately needed: Figueroa said that Ulster County has one of the highest overdose rates in the state, with a total of 166 overdoses and 56 deaths in 2018.
“We could also bring in the First Chance program, to get them employed,” he said. He explained that First Chance provides employment opportunities to first offenders age 20 to 32.
“We need to come together as a county,” Figueroa concluded. “Our enemies are taking advantage of us, and democracy is compromised. We need to include all citizens together. We are one nation and always will be.”