Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-The Bronx and Queens) got a rock-star reception as she greeted constituents under the roar of the elevated No. 6 train Wednesday morning.
The freshman member of Congress, who became a national figure after her upset Democratic primary victory last year, surprised Parkchester passersby with a pop-up event promoting participation in the 2020 Census.
“Our strategy is all about building trust in the community before the enumerators even come to your door,” Ocasio-Cortez told THE CITY.
That trust is crucial in a district where 47% of residents are foreign born, and fear of taking part in an official government count is expected to be widespread.
“There’s been an increased use of one’s immigration status as a form of intimidation,” she said.
For Ocasio-Cortez, a full Census count is more than a matter of making sure her district gets all the funds and services it’s due. In a sense, her own political fortunes could hang in the balance.
A review by THE CITY, building on data and analysis by The Texas Tribune, suggests Ocasio-Cortez’ district could be particularly vulnerable to undercount because a little over a quarter of those living there are non-citizens.
That’s a higher percentage than any other congressional district in the state.
A Census undercount in Ocasio-Cortez’ district and elsewhere in the state could lead to the elimination of congressional districts — potentially setting off politically charged redistricting battles.
New York already is on track to lose up to two congressional seats during reapportionment due to population decline and slower rate of growth, according to a December report by Election Data Services.
“Every member of Congress should be concerned about the Census,” said Jeffrey Wice, a fellow at SUNY Buffalo Law School and redistricting expert who’s a senior advisor to New York Counts 2020.
‘The Damage Has Been Done’
The Trump administration recently attempted to add a citizenship question to the once-a-decade count, which dictates how $675 billion in federal funding — for things like Medicaid, Section 8 housing, foster care and school lunches — is allocated each year.
This controversial effort was unsuccessful, though “the damage has been done,” Wice said.
Ocasio-Cortez’ district is full of communities with apprehension about the Census process, said Naureen Akhter, the lawmaker’s deputy district director.
“We have a high immigrant population, a lot of undocumented folks, a lot of distrust from the community in the government,” she said.
In-person contact, like home visits, likely will be key to district residents’ Census participation. While the 2020 Census will mark the first time the national survey is conducted primarily online, close to 40% of those who live in Parkchester, nearby Castle Hill and Clason Point do not have broadband internet access, according to a July report by the City Comptroller’s Office.
“People are intimidated in many different ways,” said Judith Goldiner, who runs the Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society.
Some tenants have contacted the organization reporting that their landlords have threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on them, at a time when fear of ICE raid runs high. In one case in Brooklyn, Goldiner said, a landlord asked only non-white tenants to sign a lease with a clause requiring they prove their citizenship.
A Door-to-Door Effort
As Ocasio-Cortez greeted constituents Wednesday, Census Bureau representatives standing nearby handed out flyers, seeking workers to go door-to-door in the neighborhood for the crucial population count.
As of July 12, the Census Bureau had filled 28% of the 121,240 New York area positions it’s recruiting for, according to a presentation last month by Jeff Behler, director of the state Regional Census Center.
“As you see, we’re a year out from the Census, and we’re already here with organizers, enumerators,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So step one is to hire people from the community. Hire people from Parkchester, from Jackson Heights, from Pelham, from Throggs Neck that are from these communities, that understand these communities, that are already trusted — so when they knock on people’s door, people don’t feel intimidated or strange about it.”
The congresswoman’s surprise appearance spurred double-takes from commuters. Retirees, kids headed to camp and construction workers all stopped to meet their representative — some saying their hellos in Spanish while others briefly whipped out earbuds to shout their support.
Every elected official “should do this,” Jonathan Fogel, a doctor who works at an urgent care center nearby, said before pausing for a photograph with Ocasio-Cortez.
“It’s like seeing a rare bird,” he added.
Sophia Suarez, a high school teacher, cried after meeting the lawmaker known to many as AOC. She took Ocasio-Cortez’s Census count message to heart.
“It’s about creating voice,” Suarez said. “We need to come out in numbers.”
This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.