WASHINGTON -- As census efforts ramp up this spring, outreach organizations fear that Trump administration officials may try to deport the immigrant communities they need to count.
A network of nonprofits, local governments and advocacy groups has fanned out to help the Census Bureau conduct its decennial count of America's residents. Some advocates worry the administration, after its failed push to add a citizenship question to the census, may continue on-the-ground immigration enforcement efforts in a departure from previous censuses.
A raid by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could easily wreck months of outreach efforts, experts said.
"It would be really chilling if the Census Bureau had a partnership event in a community with immigrants and ICE showed up," said former Census Bureau Director Thompson. "It could be really, really disruptive of getting a good count for certain population groups."
This year's count of roughly 330 million people living in the United States has already begun -- the Census Bureau started Tuesday in remote Alaska -- but won't ramp up in earnest until the spring.
Organizations such as the Urban Institute have said the fight over the citizenship question, as well as growing government distrust, increase the chances that this year's census will miss millions of people. That could distort political representation, federal spending and economic growth for a decade, experts have said.
During previous census efforts, ICE and the bureau came to an understanding to keep immigration enforcement from interfering with the count.
"There was an informal agreement that 'We're not asking you not to enforce the law but just give us some space to get a good count,'" Thompson said. "There were a few little incidents but nothing major."
ICE's predecessor agency, Immigration and Naturalization Services, had an even greater deference to the census. According to congressional testimony and agency statements leading up to the 2010 census, immigration officials agreed to back off raids during the counting process.
The Census Bureau director during the 2000 census, Kenneth Prewitt, said that was one of the norms "shattered" under the current administration. Focus groups conducted by Article 1, a nonprofit Prewitt advises, suggest that fear and mistrust of the government created "an unusually fragile moment" in American history.