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Detroit — Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said it is vital that all Michigan residents be counted in the 2020 Census or risk losing a U.S. House representative and receiving less federal funding in the next decade.

Holder, who served under Democratic former President Barack Obama, emphasized the importance of advocating for suppressed and marginalized communities, especially, immigrants, during a Tuesday panel that included local leaders and elected officials in Detroit. 

"There’s a lot of misinformation and disinformation put out to generate fear," Holder said to the group of 50 people gathered at Focus: HOPE. "The fear is on what this collected information will be used to do and the assumption that it will be putting undocumented people at risk."

An undercount of existing residents would result in less government aid for already poor communities including Detroit, which is America's poorest big city.

"(The Census) will have $900 billion in federal aid rolled out to cities for federal infrastructure, education... by where the people are and (determine) the number of representatives," he said. "Michigan is in danger of losing a congressman. One of the ways you counteract that is to make sure everyone is counted.

"We have to counter fear and reassure people, but we also have to put a mechanism in place to protect those people who the administration would try to hurt for raising their hands."

Demographic experts have predicted for several years that Michigan will lose a congressional seat in the 2020 Census because the state's population is stagnant while populations in other states in the West and South are growing. In 1980, Michigan had 19 U.S. House seats but now has 14 seats.  

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said Wayne United, the county's diversity inclusion program, is working to advocate in 42 of its cities and there's a separate initiative to promote participation for Detroit.

During the panel, Evans said an undercount could cost the county $1,800 a person each year in revenue and is critically important to the 2020 election. 

"The revenue is needed most for those we don’t count," Evans said. "You can't overstate the importance of this. The efforts of the current administration to suppress and want an undercount, we have to get people to believe us. We’re going to protect our citizens and they need to be counted."

Holder agreed with Evans, saying the Trump administration's unsuccessful attempt to add a citizenship question to the census as well as Republican manipulation of redistricting are more attempts "to suppress the count."

"It’s ridiculous. The aim of adding that question was to scare immigrants, specifically Hispanics, from answering and being counted," he said.

The Trump administration has argued that the U.S. government has asked about citizenship in prior Census efforts and is a legitimate issue to measure. Critics have countered that asking about citizenship would intimidate illegal immigrants who need to be counted and receive government services for which they qualify.

► More: Census to be printed without citizenship question

The U.S. Supreme Court his year ruled that claims about gerrymandering in the drawing of political boundaries involve "political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts" and should be dealt with by the states. Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment in November to let an independent redistricting commission appointed by the secretary of state redraw political boundaries every 10 years instead of the Legislature and governor.

The high court's decision could embolden political line-drawing for partisan gain in other states after the 2020 census, Holder said.

"It's one of the worst decisions I think this court has made," he told The Detroit News. "...We will fight for ballot initiatives that change the law that way. We have to make sure there's transparency from right to left."

In 2017, Holder launched the Nation­al Democratic Redistricting Committee, a political action committee focused on redistricting strategies in the country's Republican-controlled swing states to tackle gerrymandering.

Holder said those opposed to redistricting "are trying to cheat."

"If you’re not counted, you can be discounted and your voice will not be heard and policies will be put in place that are not in the best interest of the American people."

But the Michigan Republican Party's leader said Holder is leading an effort to shift redistricting efforts to favor Democrats.

"“While Eric Holder is publicly crusading against gerrymandering, in reality he is trying to redraw legislative districts to favor Democrats," Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox said in a statement.

"Those are not my words it’s the stated purpose of the 'National Democratic Redistricting Committee' which he runs. According to IRS documents, the organization exists to 'FAVORABLY POSITION DEMOCRATS FOR THE REDISTRICTING PROCESS'. You can’t get more partisan than that.”  

Michigan kids are one of the most undercounted, especially kids under 5 years old, said Michigan Census Director Kerry Ebersol Singh. 

Jaleelah Ahmed, superintendent of the Hamtramck School District, said while guardians understand education funding is important for their children, more than half of the families they serve do not trust government officials.

"With fear comes control. We’re trying to reach our families to be empowered, to educate and help them make informed decisions," she said.

Pastor Walter Starghill Jr., founder of Face to Face Outreach Ministry, said his group is trying to advocate to their religious groups to participate in the census while groups like Focus Hope are working on kiosks and ways to aid seniors in filling out their forms.

"Some people are not being counted for the simple reason of their living arrangements...," Starghill said. "People who are living together that aren’t supposed to have that many under one roof so their boyfriend/girlfriend living with them isn’t counted," he said. "We need to pull this weight together. You need to be at the events, the meetings. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and if you’re on the menu, you’re getting sliced and diced."

Even though the Census Bureau is relying on most respondents to answer the questionnaire by internet next year, hundreds of millions of printed postcards and letters will be sent out next March reminding residents about the census. Those who don’t respond digitally will be mailed paper questionnaires.  

Those who do not fill out the form in its entirety will have a representative knocking on their door. Officials stressed the Census Bureau representative will not collect the information, just inform that all questions must be answered. 

"The fate of the nation rests on your shoulders, and that’s not an exaggeration," Holder said. "You could not have more that is at stake."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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