The census is intended to count everyone in the country — men, women, children, young and old, citizen and non-citizen. It doesn’t matter. If you live here, you count.
Yet getting recent immigrants and undocumented workers to participate is historically not easy.
This story is part of our three-day package covering the 2020 census. If you missed a day and want to catch up, or want to see what we have coming for day three, visit our landing page here.
Cortland County plans to receive $78,500 in state funds to get the word out about the census, especially to traditionally undercounted groups, such as immigrants and undocumented workers. That money will be used on advertising and for renting event space, said John Suarez, the coordinator of the Institute for Civic Engagement’s Office of Service-Learning at SUNY Cortland, who is also a member of the county’s complete count committee, which works with the U.S. Census Bureau.
CAPCO’s family development director Brandy Strauf, too, works with this committee, which she said is in the beginning stages of doing community outreach about the census. CAPCO has already had outreach sessions in its own offices and is preparing “to break out into other areas of the community where we can get this information out to the public,” she said.
Part of that effort is communicating to immigrants and undocumented people that they should take part in the census, Strauf said.
The complete count committee, she said, is still working on the form that outreach will take.
But while undocumented people especially might be nervous about giving out information, Strauf said individual data is not shared with other government agencies.
“What we’re telling people is what we’re getting from the census — that no information will be shared,” she said.
Convincing people of that, however, is another story.
“Getting people to fully participate in the census is always a challenge,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law.
For the 2020 Census, that task — especially among immigrants and undocumented people — is expected to be even harder, he said.
One prominent reason is the Trump administration’s failed attempt to place a citizenship question on the census. While that attempt was shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the controversy around the move generated massive publicity, he said, which in turn drew the attention of immigrant communities.
“There is no question on the census that asks citizenship status,” said SUNY Cortland NYPIRG Project Coordinator Ethan Gormley. The crucial thing, however, is to get that word out there “that this (the census) is extremely safe and that this information won’t be shared with other government agencies,” he said.
But the media attention generated by the attempt to add a citizenship question “has left a lot of people unconvinced that it’s not on the census,” Chishti said.
The administration also made several high profile attempts to force federal government access to state databases.
“All of these are attempts to undercut the importance of including all immigrants in the count,” he said, and considered together, they can give immigrants pause about the census.
“That is, I think, a real concern,” Chishti said.
Promises of security
The problem is trying to persuade people to participate, despite a “narrative that’s not friendly to immigrants” coming out of a White House that portrays immigrants as “a national security threat or an economic threat.”
“People are not oblivious to that,” he said.
This makes immigrants, especially undocumented ones, less likely to participate, since participation is seen as too much of a risk, he said.
Chishti points out that there is little individual incentive for anyone — especially undocumented people — to provide information, because any individual benefit is abstract.
Moreover, some immigrants speak little or no English and may come from countries torn by war or plagued by corruption, he said. For people from such backgrounds, filling out officials government forms can be viewed as dangerous.
“We as outreach workers with the strong assurance of the census bureau are trying to communicate that filling out the census is safe for everyone,” said Richard Wood, census specialist at InterFaith Works of Central New York, a Syracuse-based nonprofit that works with refugees.
“How do we make it safe?” Wood added. “First of all, it’s a crime to misuse census information. Secondly, census information about an individual is never supposed to be used individually. It’s there for statistical purposes. … Census workers have to swear that they will protect the confidentiality of census data for their lifetimes.”
But despite all this, persuading immigrants to participate is another matter, he said.
“There is a definite trust issue that has to be addressed,” Wood said. “We need to overcome that issue with as many as we can, because it’s very important for the community as a whole that everyone is counted.
But the main problem that immigrants and undocumented people have always experienced with the census remains the same — language.
“Many of our new Americans are not fluent English speakers or are not English speakers at all,” Wood said.
This is why the U.S. Census Bureau publishes census guides in 59 languages, which explain step by step how to fill out the English forms, even if the individual completing the information isn’t fluent in English, Wood said.