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LITTLE ROCK -- Local immigrants rights advocates on Wednesday criticized President Donald Trump's latest census policy, calling it unconstitutional and a political ploy to further suppress disenfranchised people.

On Tuesday, Trump released a memorandum ignoring the number of immigrants in a state illegally when determining the size of that state's congressional representation after this year's U.S. Census.

Under the memo, Census workers would continue counting people in the country illegally, but "for the purpose of the reapportionment of Representatives following the 2020 census, it is the policy of the United States to exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status."

During a media conference Wednesday hosted by Arkansas United, an immigrant-rights advocacy group, several people criticized Trump for what they said was a continued assault against immigrants in this country.

"Once again, the president is looking to create polarization and division," said Mireya Reith, the founding executive director of Arkansas United.

She went on to say the memo was "completely unconstitutional" and a "throwback" to the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision excluding Blacks from protections under the Constitution.

Democratic lawmakers in Washington likewise dismissed the memo as unconstitutional, and national groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have promised to file lawsuits to block the memo's enactment.

The Trump administration was blocked last year by the Supreme Court from adding a question to census asking about citizenship. The administration said the question would help enforce voting rights.

This year's census has been hampered by the covid-19 pandemic, which has complicated census workers' efforts to obtain an accurate tally of the country's population. Census officials have asked Congress for more time to complete the task.

In addition to determining the apportionment of U.S. Representatives, the census is used every 10 years to redraw state legislative lines and divvy about $1.5 trillion in money to local governments and organizations.

Advocates on Wednesday said the latest Trump administration directive could further discourage census participation from immigrants.

Bill Kopsky, the executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said if immigrant participation in the 2020 census wanes, it could "catastrophically impact Arkansans for years to come," putting all residents at a disadvantage.

If an inaccurate count is reported, it would have educational, political and economic consequences, he continued.

"The municipalities of Arkansas already are dealing with funding gaps," Kopsky said.

He encouraged all immigrants to still participate in the census and assured them filling out forms by mail or online would not expose them or endanger their status. It's federally unlawful for the government to share or transfer any information collected during the census, he said.

Trump, meanwhile, is engaging in a "fear trap" and taking advantage of people's reluctance to participate in the census, Kopsky said.

Laura Kellams of Arkansas Counts, a children's advocacy group, said there are roughly 80,000 children in Arkansas who have at least one immigrant parent.

She argued the latest declaration from the White House would "depress immigrant families" and would reduce money to schools, after-school programs, health services and more.

Trump stated in his memo the Constitution "does not specifically define" which people must be included in the census. In other words, it doesn't require counting "every individual physically present within a State's boundaries at the time of the census," he wrote.

Reith said Trump's policy would "likely be fought through the courts" and wouldn't be enforceable.

She reiterated Kopsky's point Trump's latest announcement would worsen concerns about the census from the immigrant community and discourage people from participating.

The American Immigration Council states as of 2018, there were more than 143,700 "foreign-born individuals" living in Arkansas, roughly 5% of the state's population.

Hon Chung, a Fort Smith doctor who 40 years ago came to Arkansas as a refugee from Vietnam, said immigrants cannot be reached or assisted if there is no accurate count of how many are living in the state.

"That's as dangerous as not knowing who has the [covid-19] virus," he said.

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